Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rant of the Week: Yelp

Mind if I rant a little bit?

Today I'd like to rant about Yelp, our harsh mistress, our abusive spouse, the source and summit of all our success and the cause of much of our stress.

(Btw, check out our nearly complete Yelp archive here -- we've collected all the reviews we could, but we're a little behind. Still, the document is huge...)

First, the good: Yelp has been very good to us on one level. A few years ago, I noticed we were getting website traffic from this curiously named site called "Yelp.com." I asked TJ, my buddy who knows all things wine, food, travel and pop culture, (he worked for USA Today for a little while, writing about such things) if he he knew what that site was.

"You're getting good Yelp reviews?" he said, "That's great!" (I appreciated his optimism -- we WERE getting a few good reviews, but it was equally possible that we were getting negative reviews).

He told me it was one of these great new Web 2.0 websites or something, and that we might see some new exposure from it. That was welcome news, because back in those days, I was putting out flyers in coffee shops, putting ads on Craigslist, and hoping for the best. "The best" usually meant a couple of jobs per week.

"Good," I said. "That would be nice."

About a year later, somewhere around 90 percent of our business came from Yelp. I remember calling my dad, a fairly big bigshot businessman in his pond, to brag to him that his liberal arts major slacker son had amassed 15, that's fifteen reviews on Yelp.com.

"That's great!" he said, clearly not knowing what the hell Yelp was. "Keep up the good work. How's the weather?"

That's how all of our conversations go. [New business] + Weather + [Here's your mother.]

I was pretty frakking proud of that particular high water mark, and I couldn't have guessed or even hoped for much more. Still, we managed to shoot up to almost 90 reviews by the end of 2010. Most of which were 5-stars. The vast majority of which were 5-stars.

We weren't the only ones benefiting from great Yelp reviews. We have a little network of what I call our "Trusted Movers," of which there are about four companies. One of them, Bookstore Movers, was always our north star -- no matter how many reviews we received, we were always at LEAST ten reviews behind them. At one point, I think they had over 100 visible 5-star reviews.

The word "visible" is key there. Because not long after we started getting a lot of reviews, we started losing a few. Then a few more. And then many more. It didn't take long to discover that Yelp has an "automatic" (more on that later) filtering system that looks for bogus reviews and shuffles them to a filtered (or archived) section. You can still access them, but they don't show up in the rankings, and you have to scroll way down to the bottom of the page and click on an obscure, grayed-out link, and THEN do that annoying captcha thing.

So, for example, as of this writing we have 189 filtered reviews and 53 visible reviews, our overall ranking is based on those 53 reviews. We are currently the most-reviewed company in our category and area, but we show up on page two or three, depending on inscrutable factors.

Back in 2010, though, that wasn't as much of a concern. We had more business than we could handle, people were predisposed to love us (and be much more forgiving if we screwed up) because they knew they could trust us to at least try to do a good job and never screw them over. What could be better?

Well, aggressive account executives from Yelp convinced me that we could do better by paying for advertising. Benefits:

More exposure by:
  • Put up a slideshow of the images of your business.
  • Highlight a user’s review that you like the most (as the business owner)
  • Promote your business as a sponsored search result and on your competitors’ business pages. Target potential clients while they are making decisions about where to spend their money on a business like yours

Sounds great, right? It sounded like a nice little cushion of a lead -- our already numerically superior advantage bolstered by some good top-page placement on competitor's pages.

And, of course, the unspoken expectation that by becoming paying customers to Yelp, we'd get some...oh...less tangible pull with management when it came to regulating or monitoring our reviews. Surely someone paying thousands of dollars per year is going to get a little extra juice with Yelp, right?

Wrong. Almost immediately after beginning our advertising campaign, our reviews took a nosedive. It was epidemic -- every other company I'm friendly with had a similar problem. Bookstore Movers went from 100 reviews to around 25 in just a couple of months.

It was a slaughter. My Truck Buddy, Suburban Solutions, Haulzing, District Relocators and others all lost huge chunks of their reviews. It was panic time.

Worse, Yelp's algorithm was OVERLY aggressive. I mean Mike Tyson on a third date aggressive. 99.99 percent of our reviews are legitimate (one of our guys, in a fit of well-meaning but totally unsanctioned initiative wrote a review for us. It was filtered). So, new reviews were being archived (filtered) within days or weeks of posting. Curiously, bad reviews would stay on much, much longer. I don't have hard data for that time period, but more recently, we've lost at least eleven reviews in less than a month of posting -- actually, all but two were lost within a week:

Suzanne C.: 2 days
Jamie K.: 5 days
Sara D.: 3 days
Jeffrey C.: 3 days
Ricardo C.: 5 days
Desiree W.: 2 days
Jane E.: 2 days
Donna M.: 3 days
Jw.w.: 3 days
Justin S.: one month
Julie G.: 3 days

That's a tiny sample of the archive.

I now know I was naive to think that with no hard agreement we'd still have a little more pull at Yelp. As it happens, they don't give a damn. They get your money, and then, mysteriously, your reviews start dropping into the ether.

Yelp reps have a bad reputation among us business owners, at least in the moving industry. (Here's a good take-down of Yelp's shady practices from another industry.) Whenever any of us would call to get some clarification or HELP, we'd get the standard boilerplate "Our algorithm is designed to ensure people are reading only legitimate reviews blah blah blah." That's little comfort to a business owner who's worked extremely hard to build systems and practices that ensure customer satisfaction, only to see tangible, public, online proof disappear after a few days on the site.

And don't get me started on their near-refusal to do anything that comes close to redress for biz owners plagued by stalker psychopaths. Actually, too late, I started...

About six months ago we got a little backdraft from a situation involving one of our friends in the business. Long story short, the move went bad. Some of it was their fault, and some of it was their customer's fault. The situation became extremely acrimonious, and as best as we could tell, that customer got all of her friends to write negative (scathing, actually) reviews about them on Yelp. The problem: at least six of those reviews were totally bogus, as in THE COMPANY DIDN'T ACTUALLY SERVICE THEM IN ANYWAY. The reviews were pure fiction.

Because we'd referred that customer to our partners, we got a little of that wrath. Some jerk who we never helped wrote a negative review about us, accusing us of damage and theft. I take that very seriously, and I got to the bottom of it immediately. We had no record of that customer, he didn't respond to inquiries about it, and he never bothered to contact me directly. In other words, this was a completely and utterly bogus review.

Further proof: that guy reviewed about five other moving companies on the same day. Huh? Did he store up all his negative reviews from the past five years? And the only positive review he'd ever given was for a bike shop in Portland, OR.

I brought these facts to Yelp, and they said there wasn't much they could do: they weren't going to get into a "he said, she said" situation because they had no way of knowing who was telling the truth.

SAY WHAT?!? Their whole business is predicated on the veracity of their reviews!

Fortunately, that review was eventually flagged for content violations. It doesn't show up in our rankings or even the filtered section. But who knows what kind of damage that did?

I could go on (especially about over-zealous reviewers who seem to take pleasure in damaging companies' reputations over trivial things, or about customers who basically extort us for more goods and services while wielding the badge of "consumer advocate").

To all our customers who've reviewed us favorably (and even those who've LEGITIMATELY reviewed us negatively): thank you for taking the time to register your opinion. That aspect of Yelp is good -- a public forum where people can reward good customer service, and help companies improve when they've dropped the ball. But to business owners considering buying into Yelp's malicious business model, STEER CLEAR. It's not worth it. You'll spend thousands of dollars for maybe a 10 percent uptick in page views. As noted here, your money is spent far better on Adwords or really, anything else.

Rant fin.


Anonymous said...

Very well written post.

Anonymous said...

I know a thing or two about the local moving industry and yelp and have seen yelp literally take food off people's plates by arbitrarily filtering reviews. Why is it that a first time yelper always has their review filtered out? A company like MTB actually registers first time users who were so happy with the company's services that they were compelled to wite a review only to have it disappear into the filtered section. MTB and other companies are doing yelp a service by signing these people up for yelp only to get stabbed in the back by having the review filtered.

Furthermore, there is little rhyme or reason to what gets filtered I've seen reviewers with 20+ reviews get filtered out while others with fewer than ten stay up for months. It makes no sense.

I've thought long and hard about advertising on yelp and concluded that people are going to use yelp to help make the final decision but it's best to gain exposure to potential leads through other avenues so the consumer might go to yelp to research you instead of simply encountering your business on yelp for the first time. It's all about generating both targeted and general media impressions within the defined market area in order to create some base level of awareness about your company so the consumer wants to check you out.

As for the searches, if you play with moving related keywords on yelp companies that advertise on yelp and others that actually have fewer stars and reviews will show up before the top rated companies based upon the only criteria that supposedly matter to yelp. It makes no sense. Anyway, it's late and im tired and im not sure my prose is particularly coherent but yelp is irresponsibly managed and on many levels, a scam which means it is doing a disservice to businesses, the reviewers, and ultimately consumers who use it.