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SMBs Say Yuck To Yelp's Telemarketers

Many thanks to my friend, Donna Swain, for pointing out the continuing story of Yelp’s confusing pitch to Small Business Owners, as featured in Sonoma County’s Press Democrat.
Back in August 2008, Greg Sterling brought my attention to the controversy surrounding Yelp’s negative review policy when a business owner claimed he was falsely led to believe that he could pay money to Yelp to have his negative reviews moved to the bottom of his profile. I blogged about this and the business owner featured in the CBS news coverage of this story showed up to leave a comment here at the SEOigloo, to explain what had happened to him:

Yelp’s sales reps use negative postings as a “lead source” to call the owner and attempt to sell Business Owner Accounts. I received a phone call from a sales rep named Summer who stated that negative reviews could be moved to the bottom of the page and possibly removed in the future if I purchased a Business Owner Account.

Having begun paying Yelp $350/month, the business owner was dismayed to discover that, not only could he not make his negative review recede into the background, but Yelp removed his positive reviews and continued to let the negative ones flow in. Yelp responded to the business owner’s furor and confusion by saying that the IP addresses of his positive reviews were ‘suspect’ and the story just continued to get murkier from there on out.
My esteemed friend, David Mihm, commented on my coverage of this subject by saying:

I think given all the flak Yelp is taking, it’s going to make dramatic steps to improve its review / reviewspam system. It would be too easy to continue to get negative publicity and lose customers otherwise…

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any David Mihms working at Yelp, and as today’s Press Democrat piece details:

Condra Easley, co-owner of Patisserie Angelica in Sebastopol, said she was told that for $300 a month she could rearrange the reviews about her pastry shop so the bad ones would drop to the bottom.
“If you went with them, then you could put your favorite reviews on top,” Easley said. “Now that I know that people can pay to switch things around, I’ll go to the bottom to read reviews.”
But it is not true. Businesses cannot pay to rearrange reviews, according to Yelp’s Web site. If Easley had paid the $300 a month, she would not have been able to rearrange the reviews…

An aggressive telemarketing campaign has evidently been launched in Sonoma County, and while it looks like Yelp has lowered their price by $50, their pitch is continuing to bewilder business owners. Are the telemarketers being trained to intentionally mislead the people they call, promising control over a business profile for a handsome fee, fully aware that as soon as the SMB tries to shove their negative reviews out of sight, that promised power will be denied them? Or, are the telemarketers woefully ignorant of Yelp’s policies and are promising the moon to people in order to get a signature on the dotted line? Either way, no one has taken David Mihm’s good advice of getting this nonsense cleaned up by creating a clear, transparent Yelp policy that is strictly adhered to in all company communications with business owners and the general public.
You might have thought that the negative coverage during the summer would have been enough for Yelp to get real about this, but they’ve obviously failed to do so and the end result is a lengthening queue of angry local business owners who could have been happy customers. An ironic outcome of Yelp’s confusing tactics is that at least one business owner who has been promised total control of their listings has come away with this conclusion:

“Now that I know that people can pay to switch things around, I’ll go to the bottom to read reviews.”

While Yelp is certainly not the only review-oriented site that has been accused of misleading business owners, this is the second time in the course of a couple of months that this story has made headlines and with trust and public reputation hanging in the balance, Yelp needs to re-examine its tactics which, intentionally or not, are leading to genuine bad feelings in local business communities.