3 inconsistencies in Yelp’s review solicitation crackdown

Last month, Yelp doubled down on its war on review solicitation. Yelp has long given mixed signals about whether you can ask customers for reviews on their platform, but they seem to now be unifying their message against review solicitation.

In November, they began sending messages like this to businesses and agencies:

Disclosure: We (Go Fish Digital) received the email above. However, they must not have really done a lot of research to compile this list, as we do help clients with reputation management, but we do not solicit Yelp reviews on their behalf. We don’t do any review solicitation.

This new crackdown is a little disturbing, and in many ways, quite misleading. Here are three ways in which I view this all as quite hypocritical.

1. They LITERALLY told us review solicitation was OK

I once emailed Yelp support and asked them directly if review solicitation was OK. The wording on their website was ambiguous, so I wanted a clear answer to the question.

I had just returned a rental car, and the rental car company (a household name brand) sent me an email asking for a review on Yelp. I screen-shotted the text of the email and sent it to support asking if this was acceptable. Below is a screen shot of their response, which I wrote about this last year in my post, “5 Yelp Facts Business Owners Should Know (But Most Don’t).”

You can see in the response that they discouraged it, but it wasn’t against their rules. But now, Yelp is saying that they’ll suppress you in their search results, and potentially add a consumer warning if they find you are systematically asking for reviews.

Interesting change of position, eh?

2.  They apparently speak for the whole internet

Much (but not all) of the communication talks about prohibiting requesting reviews from customers. And they aren’t just saying, “Don’t request Yelp reviews.” They are saying, “Don’t request reviews, period.”

From their site:

Asking for reviews at all, even if the business breaks norms and attempts to ask more than just their happy customers, can create a bias away from organically motivated reviews. And when some businesses ask for reviews and others don’t, it becomes difficult for users to compare reviews across businesses. Not only does solicitation lead to bias, it’s a bad experience for customers, too.

If there were only one review site in all of the land, I could see how a blanket declaration against review solicitation would be OK. But I think we could all rattle off at least five or 10 more review sites that exist besides Yelp. And most of them have not taken a hard stand against asking customers for reviews.

As a small business owner, I’d be very frustrated. Yelp is basically telling you how to run your business. In reality, reviews are just the “word of mouth” for the internet. Can you imagine an authority figure saying, “You can’t ask customers to tell their friends about your small business. You might bias the word of mouth.” It sounds ridiculous because it is.

3.  They misinterpreted (or misrepresented?) a study about reviews to justify their crackdown

Hat tip to my Go Fish Digital co-founder, Dan Hinckley, for catching Yelp red-handed with this one.

On July 31, 2017, Vince Sollitto, the senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Yelp, published a post on the Yelp blog titled, “Why Yelp Doesn’t Condone Review Solicitation.” It is a short post that includes this:

Part of what makes content high quality is a lack of bias. That’s why Yelp’s automated software does not recommend reviews it believes to have been solicited by businesses, since solicitation leads to bias.

That “leads to bias” phrase links to a research study by researchers at Northwestern University on review solicitation, “Understanding and Overcoming Biases in Customer Reviews,” and it appears that Yelp is using this study to justify its position.

But here’s the thing: While the study did indeed find that solicited reviews tend to be higher than those of “self-motivated web reviewers,” the researchers actually concluded that this is because the latter group is biased. The study highlights that, over time, there is a naturally occurring negative bias if reviews are not solicited. (The study notes that their data supports the findings of two other studies on reviews that show the same thing.)

In other words, if a business doesn’t solicit reviews, their rating will trend downwards — even if they “provide great customer service to anyone that walks in the door,” as Yelp recommends. Existing reviews bias users toward what they should write in their own review; so, if you start with a couple bad reviews, improving your customer service may not ever be enough to improve your star rating. The study found that “even the decision of a user to submit a review can be influenced by the current state of the reviews.”

On the flip side, the study found that reviews solicited over email do not have the same negative bias that occurs over time when reviews are left to be posted naturally. The average star rating of reviews solicited via email remained consistent over time. They say:

The plot suggests that email reviews are stable over time (i.e., the 20th email review for a product is, on average, equal to the 1st email review for that product), while web reviews display a downward temporal trend.

In the study’s conclusion, it literally says businesses should solicit reviews, as it will lead to a larger, more representative population of reviewers:

Furthermore, the introduction of email prompts does not disturb in any way the existing reviewing population while it incentivizes an entirely new segment of the population to submit a review. We think that this finding should provide motivation to retailers to send email prompts to their verified buyers. The reviews overall will become more representative (since a larger segment of the population will be reviewing), more credible (since the new segment of the population that starts reviewing are all verified buyers) and the ratings overall will increase (since the email ratings are on average higher than web ratings).

A swing and a miss

Yelp has a long list of things not to do, but I think the main one they actually care about is, “Don’t run surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.”

This is a common practice, and I think this is what they are trying to avoid. But instead of just pinpointing this, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by discouraging all review solicitation. This is in contrast to the study they cited, which literally says review solicitation brings about a more accurate rating.

Why does this matter?

Look, I rely on Yelp as a consumer, and we help brands navigate its confusing web of rules, filters and users. I actually like the product and think that it does a lot of things well.

However, I think Yelp really falls short in how they deal with businesses — from aggressive salespeople using high-pressure sales techniques to confusing and contradictory communication. After all, their revenue comes from these businesses’ advertising dollars, so you’d think they’d place a high priority on each touch point with their paying customers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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