Yelp’s Review Filter – Splitting Grammatical Hairs

Toronto Local SEO Matthew Hunt has written a very thoughtful article aimed at understanding how Yelp’s review filters may be applicable to Google+ Local review marketing. I highly recommend you read it. My own perusal of a segment of Matthew’s post brought up some thoughts and feelings I have on the subject, which I’d like to share with you.

One of Matthew’s objectives is to dispel the myth that you cannot solicit reviews on Yelp, Google Local, and other review sites. In my view, myths typically emerge in an atmosphere of confusion and, sometimes, fear. The purpose of many myths and moral tales is to prevent the hearer from making missteps. In this case, you are trying to be careful not to offend the review gods, lest they smite you!

In 2010, Director of Outreach and Public Policy at Yelp, Luther Lowe, blogged the following statement on the company’s official blog:

There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD]. It’s the difference between actively pursuing testimonials and simply creating awareness of your business through social media outlets.

(bolded emphasis mine)

According to Lowe, there is an important distinction between the two scenarios he describes. Personally, I am not convinced of the clarity of this particular distinction.

Matthew Hunt’s interpretation of this stated Yelp policy, as it pertains to how a business owner should communicate with his customers, echoes the interpretation I believe many people would make. He states:

If they tell you they found you on Google, then you ask things like: “Did you read the online reviews?” and “Do you leave reviews yourself?”. If they answer is yes, then tell them that you get a lot of business from folks who take the time to write a review online and that you greatly appreciate all feedback provided by your customers and hope they do the same.

Again, I think Matthew’s post is really intelligent, but if this interpretation of the policy is correct, then it all basically boils down to a grammatical distinction between the imperative and conditional mood. We’re talking about the difference between:

Review me on Yelp (an imperative command)

and

If you use Yelp, I hope you’ll review me (a conditional statement)

I am not seeing a mind-blowing distinction between these two scenarios. It is hard for me to believe that the reputations of local businesses and their vitally important reviews can live or die based on this slight of a tweak of grammar.

In both cases, the customer is being nudged toward taking an action. Does Yelp really want to be the fly on the wall, listening to whether the business owner is stating “review me” or “I hope you’ll review me”?

Why should this matter so much? Why is asking flat-out for a review so bad? Being direct is just part of being human, and part of doing business honestly. It’s hard for me to believe that Yelp’s picture of the local business world is peopled by business owners who tiptoe around their storefronts and the web just *hoping* for reviews, *hoping* that they are ‘creating awareness’ of their businesses ‘through social media outlets’.

The real world doesn’t work like that. Effective local business owners take direct approaches to everything, offering the best products and services, the best customer experiences and their best face to the world, day in, day out. They are not staring off into the clouds and hoping that good things will come to them.

Should Yelp really expect them to?

I’m a daily witness to the frustration and disappointment caused by nebulous review filtering. I find trying to explain Yelp’s stated ‘important distinction’ to clients very challenging. It’s like the difference between saying,

“Don’t go into the woods; there’s a dragon in there.”

and saying…

“You might not want to go into the woods because there might be something in there that isn’t exactly a dragon, but is more like a big fire-breathing lizard.”

When policies nitpick over what boils down to a grammatical dispute, I start to feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. And if I don’t know what I’m talking about, how can I expect my clients to?

So, if there is a myth that I would like to see dispelled, it stems from Yelp itself and their sometimes unrealistic expectations of local business owners. Google is even less communicative than Yelp about the exact nature of their policies. In such an atmosphere, people can develop all kinds of myths, hoping to walk the line, but in the absence of total transparency, they may be walking down the wrong road altogether.

In 2012, people know review sites exist unless they’ve been living off the grid for the past five years. Is it not possible that, sometimes, this awareness of the existence of review sites might not be quite enough, given the massive power online reviews now have over the reputation of businesses? Might it not sometimes be quite a natural thing to ask a happy customer for a review? Should the sky fall down if a business owner does so?

Something there is that doesn’t love a powerful policy that turns smart business owners into contortionists, fretting over grammar instead of taking a direct and honest approach, asking for a review at the end of a job well done.

Goodness knows, I am not inciting anyone here to break rules, but if rules split such fine hairs, I’m not sure I feel much respect for them.

My challenge to the Yelps and Googles of the world:

Your indexes are populated with the lifeblood of real local businesses. Without them, where would you be? When you make policy, don’t give me this stuff about BAD and GOOD without backing it up with a convincing argument about the important distinction between them. Yelp’s current policy has come to seem rather arbitrary to me. I think everyone would be happier with a transparent explanation of how the rules make sense, instead of an unexplained imperative command.

9 Responses to “Yelp’s Review Filter – Splitting Grammatical Hairs”

  1. on 07 Sep 2012 at 5:18 am Matthew Hunt

    Miriam, you hit the nail on the head and explained this stuff a lot better. Thanks for being inspired and taking this subject one stop further. It needed it.

  2. on 07 Sep 2012 at 12:08 pm admin

    Matthew,
    Thank you so much for stopping by. I thought your post was really important. I’m glad you thought this was worth reading. Thanks, also, for the tweet. Appreciate it. See you around the web!

  3. on 08 Sep 2012 at 12:28 pm "Toy" Davis

    I’m in 100% agreement. It’s ridiculous that Yelp enforces this ambiguous policy with such an iron fist. I don’t believe they have flies on walls listening to the grammar and nuance of everything small business owners say… which means that the blacklisting of all-important listings is arbitrary and left up to the whims of petty administrators.

    When the law is vague and justice arbitrary, good people look to overturning their dictators.

  4. on 08 Sep 2012 at 12:54 pm admin

    Welcome Toy,
    Ha! Great comment! Though I don’t see an overthrow in the works. Years ago, we used to design eBay templates and the absolute ferocious grumbling about eBay’s policies in their own forum was outrageous. I’d never seen anything like it, yet, eBay remains going strong (though watch out…Amazon is on their heels). I’d really like to see Yelp (and Google) do a better job than eBay of honoring the realities of business owners than eBay was doing back then. So glad you agree and thanks for taking the time to comment. Please, come again. By the way – really cute toys!
    Miriam

  5. on 09 Sep 2012 at 4:23 pm Phil Rozek

    Great post, Miriam! Very timely, too. Thanks for sharing.

    The really pathetic thing about what Yelp’s “Director of Outreach” said is that it *forces* you to read between the lines, because you can’t take it literally. The only people you’d ask to “check you out” on Yelp are people who aren’t customers (yet), and of course those people cannot and should not write a review of you until and unless they’ve actually become customers.

    On the other hand, if you ask someone who’s already taken the plunge and become your customer to “check you out” on Yelp, what would possibly be in it for that person to do so? “Gee, that’s a lovely Yelp profile, but I already paid you!” You can lead the horse to water, but you’re not even allowed to ASK if it would like to drink.

    If the people at Yelp – and Google, for that matter – weren’t such morons, they’d have a policy as follows:

    “Sure, you can ask your customers to review you. But you’d better take pains to tell them ‘Please be brutally honest; we just want your unvarnished opinion about how we did’. We won’t necessarily filter out the reviews from brand-new users, but if they’re all 4-star and 5-star or you get too many reviews in too short of a time, we will take a close look at you and may slap you very hard.”

    Urrghh…I think I need this a rant I’ll need to continue in a post of my own :)

    Thanks again for posting, Miriam!

  6. on 09 Sep 2012 at 7:21 pm admin

    Hello Phil!

    You know…that’s a very interesting scenario you’ve brought up. If the customer is already yours and the money is in your wallet, why would you fuss them with checking out your Yelp profile? They are already singing in the choir. I had not looked at this quite this way before, but it’s a great point. I hope you will write about this further, Phil, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
    Miriam


  7. […] reviews from real customers in many cases won’t “stick” on your Google+Local page.  Similar story with Yelp, although their review “filters” have always been pretty […]

  8. on 11 Sep 2012 at 8:18 am Travis Van Slooten

    Miriam:

    Great post! As someone that lives in “realville,” I could care less what Yelp and Google say about this stuff. For starters, how would they ever know that you’re trying to persuade customers to leave reviews?

    Most business owners have a relationship with their customers on some level (or at least they should). As you’ve stated in your excellent post, business owners are direct and are going to ask a satisfied customer to leave a review for them. No customer is going to go to Yelp and say, “Hey, this business owner is soliciting me to leave a review.”

    Yelp and Google are operating in a different universe so they can come up with any ridiculous policy they want to. The rest of us who live in Realville will continue to do our thing.

    Travis Van Slooten

  9. on 11 Sep 2012 at 11:46 am admin

    Hello Travis,

    Thanks so much for reading my article, and it’s great to hear from someone in ‘realville’. You are precisely the type of business owner whom I’d like to see Yelp survey to get a consensus of opinion on making policy. There’s a world of difference, in my opinion, between asking for a review from a happy customer and doing what spammers do (faking reviews). Google and Yelp have been very public about their commitment to fighting spam and this is a good thing; I would like to see them come out even stronger than this in support of legit business owners rather than setting up strange restrictions that treat every business owner as if he is on the verge of behaving badly. Thanks for taking the time to comment…but be careful about whether a Yelper would say a business owner tried to solicit a review…if the customer is disgruntled, he just might.

    Really appreciate your comment!
    Miriam

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