Yelp, one of the best known online review sites, is no stranger to upset business owners. Founded in 2004, Yelp provides crowd-sourced reviews for local businesses. This format gained them a large community of Yelpers and a reputation as a quick, easy way to research purchasing decisions. Despite a generally positive response to Yelp, there have been numerous controversies over the years. These mainly revolve around how to determine what is and isn’t a valid review.
The latest Yelp controversy revolves around Lawyer Dawn Hassell of The Hassell Law Group. Hassell is suing Yelp to get them to remove some negative reviews which she claims are lies. Yelp is fighting this lawsuit with the support of other review sites because they believe other business would use that precedent to stifle free speech. Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft agree that business should not be able to force online review platforms to silence negative reviewers.
To understand this issue, you first have to understand how Yelp is structured. Reviewers do not work for Yelp. They are not experts in the fields that they write reviews on. Rather, reviewers are ordinary people sharing personal experiences. This is both a benefit and a disadvantage.
Authenticity is incredibly important for businesses online. Digital marketing is often about creating a personal connection. When a customer shares a true story, their experience holds weight with other potential customers. A piece that is too polished can easily come across as fake. Instead, people want to know what to expect when they go into a business themselves. A real person giving their candid opinion is better than a slick marketing piece for setting those expectations.
Unfortunately, the price of genuine customer reviews is angry venting. Not everyone’s experience is positive. That isn’t a bad thing! When a business has all 5-star reviews, it comes across as less authentic. People have different tastes so even a phenomenal business should see a few lower reviews. The issue arises, however, when an angry customer either vents their emotions online to make themselves feel better or actively attempts to scare off potential customers.
Where should the line for authenticity be drawn? If someone is simply lying, it is easy to agree their review is meritless. Additionally, there is now an online trend of reviewers intentionally tanking business’ reviews in protest. For example, after Miracle Mattress aired a tasteless 9/11 advertisement, their Yelp, Facebook, Yellow Pages, and Google star rating all dropped to 1-star. If you read the negative reviews, they are largely about the advertisement, not any product or service. The feelings were genuine but the information was not useful for anyone seeking to purchase a mattress.
Not every negative review can be discarded as inaccurate, off-topic or overly emotional. Quite the opposite! Often, negative reviews are very helpful for both customers and businesses. Some people have genuinely bad experiences. Given that they are not trained on how to write feedback, they may express themselves in blunt ways. That is okay! Despite frank wording, when customers raise a concern, business owners should recognize the areas of improvement being brought up. Once changes are made, the negative online review gives businesses a chance to respond and let everyone know how they fixed the issue!
The Hassel Law Group’s Yelp page is currently an excellent example of the Streisand effect. The Streisand effect is an internet phenomenon where someone attempts to remove or censor a piece of digital information but, in doing so, they cause the information to be publicized more widely. This effect is named after Barbra Streisand. She unsuccessfully sued photographers for violating her privacy by including an aerial photograph of her home in a collection of 12,000 California coastline homes. Prior to the lawsuit, the photograph was downloaded 6 times. Two of the downloads were Streisand’s attorneys. After the case, the site had more than 420,000 people visiting per month. No one particularly cared about the photo until they were told that they couldn’t have it. Then it was a hot topic!
The Hassel Law Group’s page has numerous 1-star reviews calling them out for censoring negative opinions. Even still, their overall rating is 3-stars. That isn’t great but it could be worse! Additionally, Yelp is currently working on removing the reviews specifically there to complain about the suit.
Hassell is right to be concerned about their online reputation. According to a Harvard study, each star rating on Yelp affects a business’ sales by 5 to 9 percent. That is a large amount of money for a lawyer!
However, while she may know that her business is excellent, it is important to remember that many bad businesses do not have insight into their problems. In a famous Kitchen Nightmares episode, Amy’s Baking Company railed against their Yelp reviewers without seeing any fault in themselves. Some ratings are earned! That is why Yelp does not want to give businesses the advantage in a “he said she said” situation. If they did, bad business would silence legitimate concerns by saying the reviewer was a liar.
No one is suggesting that The Hassel Law Group is a terrible or predatory business. It is business like any other. There are good experiences and bad ones. The question is how to handle it online.
Are review websites responsible for the content they host? Or are they merely platforms for users to share their personal experiences – good, bad, or ugly?
Third-party review sites are important but they are not the end all be all. Businesses struggling with how to handle third party review sites like Yelp should consider hosting their own reviews. If the Hassell Law Group collected and spotlight reviews on its own website, they would be in more direct control of their online reputation.