Local businesses all over have a love hate relationship with public review site Yelp.  And if they don’t, it’s probably because they haven’t received enough reviews to see both sides of the coin.

At the center of most of the issues businesses have with Yelp is the virtual anonymity of the reviewers.  A case being considered by the Virginia Supreme Court takes issue with this: in July 2012, Hadeed (the business owner) sued the seven reviewers for defamation, and demanded that Yelp turn over their true identities.

First, let’s talk about the 4 perspectives that Yelp is attempting to balance with reviews, reviewers, and businesses, then we’ll end with 5 tips to consider.

Business Perspective

Local businesses get more customers when they have positive reviews – measurably more business.  However, businesses have two motivations that can be in conflict with one another when it comes to anonymity of the reviewer:

  1. The easier it is for someone to review the business, the better for the business, if it’s a positive review.  So if reviewers are anonymous and that makes it easier, great.  And generally speaking, anonymity makes a difference with reviewers – more on that below from the reviewer’s perspective.  More reviews are also a win for everyone – the information creates transparency for the greater community.
  2. On the other hand, if a review is negative, the business owner is frequently personally offended (the business for many business owners is their life’s work and personal legacy – no one likes someone else expressing upset, disappointment, or negativity of any kind towards something that means so much).  Two types of scenarios occur:
    • The personal affront, or even the business-oriented objection to the negative review, prompts the owner to figure out who the reviewer is, how the problem happened, and how they can fix it.  This is a legitimate attempt to improve the business – a positive contribution Yelp makes to improving service and quality for the customer.
    • Or, if the reviewer’s comments doesn’t seem to match up to records, or indicate clearly who’s creating a bad reputation for their business, the business owner gets suspicious.  In some cases the reviewer can be a competitor or an unhappy employee or someone that’s a personal enemy – all situations that are possible with the anonymous system.

To summarize – anonymity can be a bonus in getting lots of good reviews but becomes a problem when the reviews are negative – a case of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’.

Reviewer’s Perspective

Customers are happy to give reviews if everything went well for them and it’s easy to post the review – that’s why so many reviews are 5 stars.  However, when things don’t go well, the situation gets messy.

  1. Anonymous reviews allow someone to post exactly what they experienced and what they think of the business – without fearing any retribution by the community or the business.  This allows the truth to get out about what happened.  That truth can be good for everyone – including the business – if it raises awareness of something that wasn’t apparent and happens consistently although not constantly.  This is a big part of why Yelp is successful.  And businesses could respond negatively to a real customer posting about a real situation that was not good – the fear of retribution impacts individual reviewers, even when they can post anonymously, although less so.
  2. On the other hand, anonymity isn’t always what the reviewer really wants.  They may appreciate an acknowledgement from the community or the business for taking the time to post a thoughtful review.  On Yelp, they may choose a screen name that’s actually their name because of this.  The downside for that person is they’re less likely to post negative reviews because of #1 above – retribution.

Essentially, Yelp’s success relies on high quality positive and negative reviews.  Unfortunately, the scenarios described above make it clear that there’s potentially a lot more going on than just straightforward positive and negative reviews – all kinds of complexity, assumptions, fears, and unknown motivations.   This is, of course, true of all human activities, but we’re fooled by Yelp’s simple interface of stars and comments into thinking it’s just about transparency.

Yelp is, I believe, here to stay – or something similar to it since Google and Facebook are trying to incorporate reviews as well.  I don’t think the Virginia case is going to have a sweeping effect – and it probably shouldn’t given the problems with having reviews require positive personal identification (the retribution problem, not the technical problem).

So what is a business to do…

Yelp Tips:

  1. Thank your reviewers for positive reviews.  Post a simple thank you as a response to their review.  Yelp discourages a lot of commenting back by the owners, but when I see these responses on a business page, I’m impressed, what about you?
  2. When you get a negative review, reflect first.  Then wait.  Try to get someone else to write your response.  This is your ‘baby’ and you are likely to be defensive.  That’s the worst reaction you can have publicly.  Put yourself in their shoes; assume the best; take responsibility in some way; and then figure out if you really can do better.  Then post a responsive response, reflecting back that you understand what they’re saying, and your intention is such and such. And thank them for letting you know.  You may invite them to come back in, but don’t push.
  3. If you suspect they’re not a customer.  If the reviewer brings something up that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with your business and you suspect they’re not a customer, then pause again to reflect.  Whatever you say is as if you will be saying it on a giant billboard on the busiest highway in your community.  Think what you want those words to be on that billboard.  What is the best representation of you and your business that could be up there?  You might say something to clarify your service or product or location or anything that’s obviously incorrect in the review.  Or you might write a similar type of review as suggested in #2 above – just take responsibility and soldier on.  The review isn’t going to go away and the more contentious you are, the more Yelp will feature it prominently because it has caused ‘engagement’.  So don’t engage, just respond.
  4. Encouraging your happy customers to write Yelp reviews. While you shouldn’t ask people to review you on Yelp specifically, you can let them know you are on Yelp if they have something nice to say about your business to you in person.  And that if they said that on Yelp, it would be helpful to the community as well.  Always do that – having the customers who love you posting their positive reviews creates some resiliency for when you have a negative review.
  5. Stay in the game for the long run.  You might have all 5 star reviews right now.  Make sure your business doesn’t depend on that as the major source of attracting customers.  Why? Because you’ll end up getting customers who are looking for why you’re not a 5 star place – then they’ll post a review about how disappointed they were.  It’s just human nature.  So diversify: Google reviews, website testimonials, Facebook reviews, case studies, and your own valuable content on your website and social media.  Keep your fan based engaged and you can weather any storm.  Otherwise, if you live by the sword you’ll die by the sword.

Good luck and good yelping!

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