The Fear & Loathing of Yelp

After years of listening to small business owners around the country lament about their love-hate relationship with Yelp, I decided to try and debunk the myth of unfair weighting of reviews, the rumor of a pay-to-play business model and to get my hands dirty in the world of seeming despair around one of the most used and most feared sites in all the land. Let’s talk about Yelp.

This article is not about how many people use Yelp, why they use it or what the average star rating across the globe may be. A lot of that information can be found on the company’s fact page. It’s an interesting read but it doesn’t address what I’m after.

I want to get to the raw emotion of it all. The true fear and in many cases deep loathing - even by people who admit that they also do use the site to gain insights into a variety of businesses or services that they need and are considering. If you own a business and are experiencing the back and forth I’ve described, know this - you are not alone. 

You are also not without options, as I learned in my quest to get to the bottom of what is really going on at Yelp and what it means or can mean for any business.

I decided to invite a Yelp “insider” Kelly Stocker, a former (recently departed, on friendly terms) Community Manager for the company in my hometown Austin, to be a guest on my weekly podcast. We also talked about Yelp with one of our regular guests, a local practicing attorney and entrepreneur, Tom Sesny. 

First, we talked to Tom - because we had a feeling he was going to feel the same way a lot of business owners feel. And boy did he deliver. Tom regaled us with tales of his carwash business and the good and bad reviews he was dealing with on Yelp. Tom’s impression - one that many people share (and assume) was that the company was weighting his negative reviews up to the top in a sort of bully-ish attempt to encourage him to pay for advertising on the site. 

Tom also told us that his wife regularly responded to all of their Yelp reviews and shared his frustration with people who left negative reviews that he felt were unfair. Tom is not alone in this. It’s a humbling experience to feel you’re at the mercy of strangers leaving public comments about your business. 

Tom also shared a story of one reviewer who pointed out a malfunction in his car wash vacuum system that he had been unaware was at issue. He fixed the problem and brought the customer back for a free car wash. Perfect.

When asked if he uses Yelp himself, Tom says no - at least he doesn’t go looking for Yelp reviews. But, he says, if they happen to come up on a Google search of course he looks ― and if there are bad reviews, he pays attention and acts accordingly, likely not going there over another business with positive review. PS - Yelp always comes up in most Google searches. 

BINGO. Here is the crazy part. And I don’t mean Tom is crazy. This is the basic insanity around our general fear and loathing of Yelp. We don’t hate it. We trust it. And we fear it, at least as business owners we do. 

The next guest I had in the studio was Kelly Stocker, the former community manager in Austin. Kelly blew the doors off of our conversation around Yelp. She gave us the real deal rubber-meets-the-road details about what is at play when someone leaves a review on Yelp for any business. We learned a lot. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Yelp’s ad sales team and the community/service teams are managed in a completely separate area of the company. They do not compare notes, talk to each other and Kelly swears that there is no quid pro quo bullying that tries to force a paid scenario.

  • Yelp has a strong community presence made up of “local taste makers” according to Kelly who are passionate about the site and help the company police reviews for authenticity.

  • Some of those community members are called “Elite Yelpers” and they are not kidding around. They are actual people, paying attention, who help the company flag reviews that seemingly come out of left field - meaning maybe you’ve never left a review before and suddenly you drop a 5-star or a 1-star. That review will not carry the same gravity as a review left by a regular user who leaves good and bad reviews for a variety of businesses.

  • Yelp provides any business with a set of free tools. FREE. That allow you to manage the way your company is listed, update your website link, contact info, etc. And also allows you to monitor everything that people are doing on your page. Want to know what people are doing on your Yelp listing? Go to

  • Kelly assured us that when a fake or unfair review is posted by a known “faker” - the example on our show was that a competitor had left a bad review - she says that your business can flag that review and tell Yelp to look into it. This is not a promise that it will always be removed. But it does give you some ammo when you are feeling helpless.

  • One of the great tools Kelly pointed out during the interview is called a Check In Offer. You know, when you go to a business you can “check in” on facebook or whatever. Well, you can also check in on Yelp. And any business can post a special offer to be popped up for the customer right there in the app. “And it can be anything,” Kelly says, “a discount, a free appetizer, or a high five from the bartender”.

  • The most important advice she gave was this - pay attention to your Yelp reviews. In any Google search, yelp reviews are generally going to pull up in the top results. That makes your business findable. You may as well take advantage of that placement and reach by logging in, responding and trying some of the promotional tools they provide. It can’t hurt.

So, ok, it’s not rocket science. These are fairly straightforward tips for turning Yelp into the “frienemy” you always knew it could be. But the reality is that Yelp is part of the search experience for millions of potential customers. You’re already there, you may as well pick up a bat and slam a few homers. (It’s baseball season, humor me) 

I think the big a-ha was learning that the sales team and the service teams are totally separate at Yelp. Our “insider” stood her ground on the premise that authenticity was Job #1 at Yelp. That the reputation of the whole company rests on the validity of their reviews is a great line. And I am inclined to believe it.

I also believe that authenticity should be Job #1 at your business too. Get a bad review? Own it, respond to it. Turn it around. Get a suggestion on your page? As Gail Goodman, former CEO at Constant Contact taught me and other, repeatedly as needed, “feedback is a gift”. She’s 100% right.

Take it for what it is worth. A lot. No amount of work for your business will help if your customer experience is not up to par. And if you’re up against a wall because you get a really bad review - maybe turn it into something great. There are many examples of deli’s and pizza places owning their bad reviews. “Come in and taste one one Yelper called the WORST meatball sub ever” is a great pitch. Google it, this is a real thing.



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