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Do You Care If A Review Was Solicited? Tell Me, Tell Yelp!

My post of last week, Yelp’s Review Filter – Splitting Grammatical Hairs, received some very thoughtful comments. This week, I want to follow up with a survey, and I’m asking you to comment with your answer to my key question:
Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?
I want to take a careful look at this. For review, Yelp’s policy is that flat-out requesting a review from a customer is ‘bad’ and strictly verboten. Google’s policy is a little more reasonable, if we’re all understanding it correctly and I never hold my breath on such assumptions. The common interpretation of Google’s policy is that you can ask for a review…so long as you don’t ask for a positive review. So, again, my question:
Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?
Let’s envision several scenarios here to consider whether solicitation of reviews really matters or not. Please note…I am not talking about faked or purchased reviews. I’m talking about a business owner saying, “Please, leave me a review,” at the end of a positive transaction.
The Restaurant
You’re looking for the classic bowl of clam chowder, the perfect pizza or the uber udon noodles. You flash through a few Yelp listings and glance at the reviews. You see that such-and-such restaurant is one Yelper’s favorite eating joint, that ten people opined that it was pretty good and that two people said it could be a whole lot better. You decide the place is worth trying. You go there and dig in.
What just happened?
You got a ‘sense’ of what other people think about a restaurant and, using your own noggin, made a decision that you’d check the place out for yourself. No one forced you to go. You made up your own mind.
What if some of the reviews you read were requested by the business owner?
Well, if you really loved the meal, you’ll find you were in agreement with those who gave the place their highest rating. If it was just a decent bite to eat, you’ll be like a lot of other people who felt as you do. If you have a dreadful meal, you’ll be in the company of those who had the same experience.
If the reviews were mostly really positive and you have a bad experience, are you out to find someone to blame, as in, “Well, Yelp users said they liked it, so they lied to me. I’ve been had!” I really doubt it. I would guess you would chalk it down to different tastes, differences in gustatory expectations or a chance bad day at the restaurant.
And, if you discovered that the business owner was in the habit of asking for reviews from happy customers, would that have changed anything that you did? Thinking it through…would you have done something different, such as not visiting the restaurant?
My guess is…
No. Finding that the restaurant exists (using Yelp like a search engine) and seeing that a lot of people have gone there and had positive or varied experiences, you would want to check it out for yourself to see what you think. That is, after all, the final word on this. What you think at the time of service is much more important than what Mike B. thought. This is your dollar and your experience. Had you stepped in the front door and seen a dead rat under one of the tables, you would probably have turned around and walked out, regardless of the fact that Mike B. enjoyed his meal 3 weeks ago, right?
So, as far as I can see, the solicitation aspect doesn’t come into the finding of the business, getting a sense of the sentiments about it and then going forth to make up your own mind. If I’m missing something in this scenario where you would have paused to consider whether the reviews were solicited and that this pause would have changed whether you went to eat at the place or not, please tell me about this in the comments.
The best and worst…
The best upshot of the above would be that you find a good new place to eat thanks to reading about it on Yelp. The worst outcome would be that you have an awful meal…but, that’s not really the end of the world, is it? It’s just a bad meal and your life can continue on.
It’s A Brand New Car!!!
So, worst case scenario, you’ve blown $10-$100 on a lousy meal. You’ll recover. But let’s look at one of the highest dollar items we humans buy: cars. You look up local auto dealerships in your region on Yelp. Again, you see some positive ratings, some so-sos and some tales of woe. You’re out to buy a new hybrid car, and there are only so many dealerships you can visit for that particular purchase in a 100 mile radius. You decide to visit every dealer who has these cars within that radius.
Let’s say you use Yelp as your helper and, instead of starting with the dealership closest to you, you start with the one that has the highest Yelp rating. Again, you’re using Yelp as a type of search engine to get an approximation of sentiment.
Now you actually set out and visit the dealerships. Depending on the quality of the unique businesses, you may be neglected at one, overly pressured at another, find an awesome deal at one, find a great future maintenance plan at another.
The best and worst…
The best case scenario will be that you happened to hear on Yelp that a particular dealership featured some outstanding quality that you will experience yourself when you go there. The worst case scenario is that you will waste several hours sitting in an office that reeks of tire fumes and you won’t buy a car. The worst case scenario is NOT that you will accidentally buy a car because of a review having been solicited on Yelp. You’re quite a bit smarter than that, I am sure.
If some of the reviews were solicited…
Would it have changed a single thing you did? I doubt it. You would still have visited the local dealerships and made up your own mind, whether Yelp existed or not, whether reviews were spontaneous or requested. Do you agree?
My guess is…
That you will pick the best deal for you. You will not buy a car at a particular dealership solely because Mike B. did. You may visit a dealership because Mike B. said it was great, but you – not Mike B – is going to make the final decision about whether you buy that car.
The Service Provider
This, in my opinion, is the toughest category. A restaurant can’t trick you into thinking it exists or serves meals if it doesn’t. The auto dealership can’t trick you into believing it has real cars for sale if the lot is empty. But, the service provider can trick you, if he is a crook.
This can have very real consequences if you are engaging someone to:
– Restore water damage in your home
– Open your door locks
– Move your furniture to a new house
– Work on a critical component of your vehicle
– Handle your investments or insurance
Hire a crook, and you could end up with a toxic situation in your house, a future burglary, stolen furnishings, a car accident or mismanagement of your finances and documents. Clearly, these things are of far more important concern than buying a pizza with a soggy crust.
Thinking it through…
If you encountered a crook via a Yelp listing and he had solicited reviews, how would this affect you? Again, please note that I am not saying that he faked reviews. I’m saying he asked his customers to leave them. If he’s a crook, chances are, people are going to jump on Yelp to say so, whether he asks them to or not. So, here we have the powerful warning potential baked into the Yelp system. If you find a listing with a ton of negative reviews on it…
My guess is…
You will avoid doing business there. So, in this specific scenario, it is very possible for Yelp to have a direct impact on whether you consider doing business with someone. It seems far less likely to me that a crook is going to manage to get a bunch of positive reviews, solicited or not, than that he will call down the wrath of the Yelp reviewer community on him, getting bad reviews left and right, solicited or not.
So, here, the scenario is something like how the Better Business Bureau is supposed to work. A negative rating could protect you from doing business with a bad apple. So long as the reviews are real and not faked, negative reviews may have a real impact on your safety and protection. Whether they are solicited or not, again, seems not to be a genuine factor in this.
If you need to engage in a transaction in which your health and life, the security of your home or the management of your finances is hanging in the balance, you should never be basing the decision of whom to do business with on online reviews.
Not because…
Reviews can be solicited, but because they can be faked.
You need to be requesting license numbers, credentials and other real-world forms of verification if you’re dealing with vital transactions. You need to use good sense.
My Conclusion
The three scenarios I’ve outlined appear to me to point to a single conclusion – solicitation of reviews isn’t really part of the equation in anyone’s mind but Yelp’s. I urge you, if you disagree, tell me why.
Barring the unlikely possibility that someone is being forced to leave a positive review on pain of death, the reviewer is going to tell the truth of his experience, positive or negative. Even if we stretch our hypothesis to include kindly individuals who feel they must say something positive if they’ve been asked to say anything at all, such tender souls are probably few and far between. In my extensive perusal of Yelp reviews, the unifying quality I’ve noticed is that Yelpers really value having their own say. They aren’t being dictated to. They want to tell their own story, regardless of whether they’ve been asked to or not. Believe me, if someone replaces their fresh-ground coffee with Folger’s Crystals, they’re going to yelp about it.
My Request
Please weigh in now with your opinion. Again, the question:
Does It Really Matter To You If A Review Was Requested By The Business Owner?
I really want to know whether Yelp’s policy represents your realistic feelings about doing real business in the real world.