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.

Coming to terms with fake reviews

Consumers overwhelmingly expect the reviews they peruse on Amazon, Yelp, Google and other review sites to be trustworthy, neutral and objective. But this reasonable expectation is frequently thwarted by the efforts of aggressive marketers who pay third parties to create phony reviews in exchange for compensation or incentivize existing good customers to leave reviews with discounts or free products or services.

These deceptive practices — termed “opinion spam” or “sock puppetry” — are a form of information pollution with multiple victims. Opinion spam blinds the consumer to the truth and poisons the reputation of the review site where the fake review appears. When detected, it may subject the marketer and/or opinion spammer to criminal and civil penalties.

Unfortunately, opinion spam — despite the best efforts of review sites to control it — appears to be a permanent, intractable feature of the e-commerce and local business information ecosystem.

Not that reviews sites aren’t trying. In 2015, Amazon filed a lawsuit against a company that offered false four- and five-star reviews for product pages. Later that year, Amazon sued over 1,100 sellers of fake reviews who allegedly posted reviews in exchange for money. And in early 2016, it sued three of its own vendors for the same practice.

Later that year, Amazon changed its Community Guidelines to prohibit reviews solicited by marketers in exchange for incentives such as discounts, freebies or other rewards. Such “incentivized reviews” had hitherto been permitted by the service. These steps — plus the development of algorithms targeting fake reviews — are all intended to clean up its messy marketplace.

Google — which for decades has warred against SEO spammers — in 2016 warned product review bloggers to disclose any compensation-based relationships with vendors and to nofollow any links to sites with whom such a relationship exists. These steps were taken to align the company’s practices better with US law, particularly Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which outlaws deceptive advertising.

And Yelp — which estimated in 2013 that between 20 percent and 25 percent of its 70 million reviews were “suspicious” — has been forced to resort to undercover sting operations involving “decoy accounts” to keep its legions of opinion spammers at bay.

The siren song of sockpuppetry

As a marketer, you’re fully aware of how critical online reviews are to your business. You may have already been tempted by a consultant or social media agency to “go over to the dark side” and start posting some complimentary reviews about your own stuff on Amazon, Google or Yelp. Here are some typical arguments you might hear — along with reasons you need to resist the temptation:

‘Everybody (including your competition) is doing it.’

Hypercompetitive consumer categories appear to be highly attractive to opinion spam. According to an anonymous former Amazon opinion spammer interviewed by Digiday earlier this year, review requests for “mobile phone accessories, Bluetooth devices, and sometimes baby products” are especially frequent, but any popular product category will likely attract opinion spam because spam “follows the money.”

It’s very difficult to counsel marketers who sincerely believe that they are the target of opinion spam (either positive or negative) that they should not resort to the same tactics used by their competitors, especially those who’ve already listened to the second argument, which is:

‘If you’re smart about it, you’ll never get caught.’

Unfortunately, there’s more truth to this statement than there should be because every move made by the review sites to clean things up is met by increasingly sophisticated workarounds from opinion spammers.

For example, when Amazon forbade compensation-based reviews in 2016, opinion spammers reportedly shifted their tactics to those less easily detectable (e.g., by offering to recompense the reviewer after the purchase of the reviewed item or by telling the reviewer to simply buy the product and return it within Amazon’s 30-day return window).

The truth is that if one carefully studies the weak points of each review site, is exceptionally stealthy and takes care to hide one’s tracks, it’s possible to insert opinion spam into the conversational chain at will without fear of suffering any short-term negative consequences.

The long-term scenario, however, is much less friendly to the prospective opinion spammer. Algorithms — some proprietary to the review sites, others available as third-party tools — are getting better at flagging opinion spam, using a mix of linguistic, behavioral and relational signals to zero in on the offender.

Additionally, federal and state public entities are growing increasingly active in policing bad actors. So while the odds of being caught in 2017 remain low, they’re bound to increase as technology and law enforcement begin to catch up to opinion spammers. Remember, soliciting fake reviews is illegal — are a couple of five-star reviews really worth breaking the law?

What’s a marketer to do?

Opinion spam is a part of life. But as discussed above, it’s foolish and risky to fight it directly by resorting to the same tactics as your opponents. So what can a marketer do?

Make full use of white-hat methods to encourage reviews.

Review quantity and review recency count, and there are many things you can do to increase your flow of reviews from actual customers. Here are some methods for encouraging customers to review your wares that will never get you into trouble:

    Emailing recent customers with a request to review the product or service, along with a link to the location where the review should appear.Including a card in each product you ship that asks the recipient to hop onto Amazon.com to post a review.Posting signs at your physical place of business notifying consumers that reviews are appreciated (albeit not rewarded/incentivized).

Emphasize the undeniably valid reviews you’ve got.

One unintended byproduct of the current state of online review unreliability is the increased importance of vetted review sites such as Consumer Reports. Many competitive CPG verticals (e.g., cars, cameras, computers, software and so on) have bona fide review sites associated with them whose reputations are high due to the fact that they are not open – and will never be open — to outside evaluators.

So, don’t leave your product’s reputation in the exclusive (and anonymous) hands of internet reviewers; get it into the hands of pro reviewers whose publications have integrity.

Inform on bad actors.

If you see something, say something. Sure, nobody likes to be thought of as a “snitch,” a “fink” or a “rat,” but if you have reason to believe that your competition is resorting to opinion spam, report them to the review site (Believe me, they’d do the same to you at the drop of a hat).

Remember, you and the review site — be it Amazon, Google or Yelp — are allies in the battle against opinion spam. If you’re going to go this route, it’s ideal to provide the best forensic evidence you can obtain, so make use of sites such as Fakespot.com and ReviewSkeptic.com, which let you paste in a URL from a review site (or the text of the review itself) in order to evaluate the probability that it’s real or fake.

Adopt a responsive consumer relations posture that responds quickly to reviews — both good and bad.

While some online consumers will credulously accept any review they stumble across, many are sophisticated and discerning enough to realize that no business is perfect and not every customer is perfectly happy. If negative reviews appear on your page, acknowledge them and open up a channel to the complainant in order to make things right.

Being active and responsive in the review space will be seen as proof that you’re paying attention, you care, and above all, you’re human. These qualities are important — arguably more important than ever in an information ecosystem in which “real” and “fake” are, even with the best available anti-spam algorithms, often maddeningly difficult to tell apart.

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

Yelp increasingly cracking down on 'review solicitation' across the internet

As reviews have become more important (to consumers and as a local ranking factor), multiple companies have emerged to monitor reviews, but also to help small business owners obtain them. Yelp is trying to stop many of those efforts.

We were provided with the following, received by one of these reputation management companies:

Yelp is, of course, just one of a number of online directories and search sites that feature consumer reviews. Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, OpenTable, Amazon and various others also encourage and publish consumer reviews. Yelp, however, has the strongest (some would argue “most extreme”) policies against what it calls “review solicitation” — asking for reviews in any form.

Yelp has historically taken a hard line against this behavior to preserve user confidence and the integrity of its content. If people doubt the veracity or authenticity of consumer reviews on Yelp, usage could decline, and so would the company’s value.

Many other sites, though not all, have a range of policies against incentivizing or paying for reviews. For example, Google’s policy says the following:

Reviews are most valuable when they are honest and unbiased. If you own or work at a place, please don’t review your own business or employer. Don’t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor. If you’re a business owner, don’t set up review stations or kiosks at your place of business just to ask for reviews written at your place of business.

Google’s Local Guides program “incentivizes” its members to provide reviews and other content with points and prizes. This is Google itself encouraging participation, not the individual business owners. And Yelp asks users to write reviews (i.e., “your next Yelp review awaits”).

However, Yelp’s more expansive “don’t ask for reviews” policy says:

Don’t ask customers, mailing list subscribers, friends, family, or anyone else to review your business.Don’t ask your staff to compete to collect reviews.Don’t run surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.Don’t ever offer freebies, discounts, or payment in exchange for reviews — it will turn off savvy consumers, and may also be illegal. Yelp has a Consumer Alerts program to let people know about businesses that engage in this sort of activity.

With the phrase “don’t ask,” Yelp goes further than others. It also advises business owners not to work with third-party review solicitation vendors. The question is how broadly the company is defining that phrase.

More recently, Yelp has also sought to prevent partners and those using its API from soliciting reviews on sites other than Yelp. The company explained in an email to me recently that if a “partner or API user” is soliciting reviews “on Yelp or other platforms,” the company will try to persuade the partner to stop, but if unsuccessful, will potentially discontinue API access or the relationship.

While some of the companies seeking to help business owners obtain reviews are unethical, others are trying to address a small business pain point in the market. Their only way to continue operating, it would appear, is to discontinue any practice that looks at all like asking for reviews on Yelp.

Postscript: Reputation management company NiceJob was the source of the email notice above.

Yext begins to verticalize local business listings syndication with 'Yext for Food'

Business listings with more content see more engagement, tend to rank higher and perform better overall. And as more searches take place on mobile devices (and eventually smart speakers and virtual assistants), marketers will need to expose more local business attributes and enhanced data for discovery and competitive advantage.

According to previous Google research, 50 percent of smartphone users conducting local-intent searches visit business locations within 24 hours. These numbers are even higher and more immediate for restaurants, which often see searches translate into visits within a few hours or less.

TripAdvisor found that “Restaurants with hours of operation on their TripAdvisor listing see 36 percent more engagement than those without them.” Yelp reports, “Businesses who complete their profiles see, on average, 5x the customer leads each month.”

Both sites also point out the importance of images on profiles. TripAdvisor said restaurants with between 11 and 20 photos see “double the amount of diner interaction over others with no photos at all,” and Yelp reports that “a business with 1-5 reviews and at least 10 photos sees 200 percent more user views than a business with the same number of reviews and no photos.”

Mindful of these findings and trends, Yext is verticalizing its listings management offerings. Yesterday the company released “Yext for Food,” which:

syndicates restaurant menu data.expands restaurant content distribution across more partners/sites (Postmates, Zomato, delivery.com, others).enables enhanced restaurant data syndication (e.g., price range, meals served, attire, happy hour specials).

There are other entities that offer similar services, such as SingePlatform. TripAdvisor not long ago added new enhanced listings products for hotels and restaurants.

Yext has also launched “Yext Healthcare Knowledge Engine” and “Yext for Mortgage,” both of which focus on distribution of vertically specific data attributes and information. The company has multiple competitors; it will be interesting to see if this sparks more verticalized offerings on their part as well.

Overall, these moves respond to a rapidly changing (local) search environment and the need for more data to satisfy more specific and demanding user queries.

Yelp says Google violated 'do not crawl' provision of 2013 FTC settlement agreement

Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com

Yelp has sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asserting that Google is improperly using Yelp images in local search results in violation of its 2013 antitrust settlement with the regulatory agency. Yelp also circulated the letter to several members of Congress and state attorneys general, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The 2013 settlement concluded nearly two years of investigations and political maneuvering. As part of the agreement, Google said it would:

[M]ake available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner on Covered Webpages on the google.com domain in the United States. Website owners will be able to exercise the opt-out described above by completing a web-based notice form. Google will implement the opt-out within 30 business days of receiving a properly completed notice form . . .

Reportedly, the commitment lasts through the end of this year, though that isn’t explicitly stated in the FTC discussion of the settlement or Google’s accompanying letter to the FTC.

The “do not crawl” provision of the settlement agreement came partly in response to 2011 Yelp claims that Google was requiring that the review site allow use of its content on Google Place Pages as a condition of being included in Google’s search index.

I have been unable to independently find Yelp images being used in Google Maps. However, the WSJ article cites multiple examples:

Yelp said it investigated and found that over one hour, Google pulled images from Yelp’s servers nearly 386,000 times for business listings in Google Maps, which Google exempted from its promise to not scrape content. Yelp then searched Google for 150 of the businesses from those map listings and found that for 110 of them, Google used a Yelp photo as the lead image in the businesses’ listings in search results.

For instance, googling “brooklyn zoo williamsburg” on a smartphone yields a box atop the search results with information about the Brooklyn Zoo NY gym in Brooklyn, including its address, hours and reviews. Also included is a photo of the gym’s interior, which was pulled from its Yelp page. Other examples include Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago and the Capital Mall in Olympia, Wash. Users or business owners typically post photos on Yelp.

If Google is found in violation of the 2013 settlement agreement, each instance “may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000,” according to the FTC release. If each image is treated as a separate violation, that would hypothetically trigger penalties of more than $6 billion, which is entirely unlikely.

If the “do not crawl” provision of the agreement does in fact expire at the end of this year, it’s not clear what will happen in 2018. Google could potentially resume crawling and inclusion of third-party content over publisher objections. I suspect, however, that Google would not do so and risk a high-profile outcry from Yelp and potentially others.

Such a move wouldn’t help Google’s case in Europe, nor in the US, where an uncertain and volatile political climate could potentially create new risks for the company.

Postscript: After this story posted, Google provided the following comment:

For many years, we’ve been in regular contact with Yelp about product changes and how they appear in search results. This is the first time we’ve heard of Yelp’s complaint that images from their site may be appearing in the way they claim. If they’d raised this concern with us, we would have immediately taken steps to look at the issue and update these results — as we’re doing now.

Business profile and review best practices from TripAdvisor and Yelp

TripAdvisor and Yelp are two of the most powerful local search and review sites online. According to consumer survey data from Burke, review sites drive more immediate actions (i.e., phone call, store visit, website visit, email) than social media or search.

This consumer behavior is because of review site content and because they’re often consulted lower in the funnel. That’s why it’s important for local marketers to take full advantage of these sites — for multiple reasons, including SEO purposes.

TripAdvisor just released a diner engagement study. Yelp also has data on what drives engagement and conversions on its site. Below I’ve distilled findings from the two sources.

Claim and complete profiles

TripAdvisor found that “Restaurants with hours of operation on their TripAdvisor listing see 36 percent more engagement than those without them.” And Yelp says that “Businesses who complete their profiles see, on average, 5x the customer leads each month.”

Add at least 10 photos

TripAdivsor explained that “restaurants with 11 – 20 photos see double the amount of diner interaction over others with no photos at all,” and those “with at least one Management Photo see 44 more engagement over those with no photos.”

Yelp data show that “a business with 1-5 reviews and at least 10 photos sees 200 percent more user views than a business with the same number of reviews and no photos.”

Respond to reviews

As indicated above, businesses with reviews on their profiles see much more consumer engagement than those without. That’s because consumers are on TripAdvisor and Yelp specifically to read reviews.

TripAdvisor reports, “restaurants with over 20 reviews see twice as much engagement as those with no reviews,” and those with “over 40 recent reviews [see] 3x the engagement.” When managers or local business owners respond to reviews, there’s also more engagement: “Managers who respond to at least 1 percent of reviews see twice as much diner engagement with their TripAdvisor listings.”

Yelp echoes this in a more general way, saying that when business owners respond to reviews, it also encourages more reviews. Thus, the findings of the two sites are broadly consistent.

Here are the simple takeaways:

Claim and complete business profiles.Add lots of photos to give consumers a sense of the place or examples of past work (more than 10).Respond to reviews to show that business owners care and are engaged with the community.

Study argues Yelp drives higher conversions than Google and Facebook

A new consumer survey from Nielsen, commissioned by Yelp, argues that review sites drive higher conversions than search and social media. The survey of 2,000 US adults found that 92 percent of respondents said they made a purchase after visiting Yelp, “at least sometimes, frequently or almost always.”

At the highest level, this makes sense because reviews have a strong influence on consumer buying behavior, and review sites are generally part of consumers’ path to purchase. According to the survey, most people who made a purchase after visiting Yelp did so within a week or less.

Source: Nielsen consumer survey (2016)

Consumers using Yelp would appear to be low in the funnel:

Consumers who use online consumer review sites and claim they make a purchase after visiting Yelp are also reporting they do so faster than before, compared to a Nielsen study from 2014. The number of consumers who report purchasing something within a few hours increased by 212 percent, and the number of consumers who say they make a purchase after a day or less increased by 55 percent.

Here are some of the survey’s additional findings:

74 percent of the consumers searching online for a local business turn to consumer online review sites at least monthly.Yelp ranked above other online review sites as “most trusted, most influential and most useful.”79 percent of Yelp users say they are looking for a business they can visit multiple times.55 percent of Yelp users searching for restaurants have ordered takeout or delivery from a restaurant they found on Yelp.

Yelp did commission this survey, and in such circumstances, caution or skepticism is typically justified. However, there are other data sources and non-sponsored surveys that directionally support the findings in the Yelp survey.

Nielsen’s non-commissioned Global Trust in Advertising Survey (2015) found that “consumer opinions posted online” ranked higher for trust than most other marketing channels.

Source: Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey (2015)

In addition, the Local Media Tracking Study, a non-sponsored study conducted by Burke for the Local Search Association, polled more than 8,000 consumers (2016) and found they were more likely to connect with a local business (call, email, store visit and so on) after a visit to a review site vs. other channels:

  • Ratings/review site: 65 percent
  • Social network: 61 percent
  • Search engine: 59 percent

    Finally, a large majority of Yelp searchers’ queries now happen in the Yelp app on mobile devices. These users are often closer in time to a purchase decision as well.

  • Moz Local gains Yelp listing management capabilities, first third-party tool to do so

    This morning, Moz is announcing a significant partnership with Yelp. While there are several elements to the deal, the standout feature is the ability to claim and manage Yelp listings entirely from within Moz Local. Verification also happens from within Moz.

    Listings management can be for a single location or hundreds of locations. It’s going to be most useful for multi-location businesses because it dramatically simplifies the process of claiming and managing content on Yelp. And everyone will be able to skip the call-back Yelp verification process.

    The claiming comes through a new Yelp API that’s been specifically developed for Moz. Chad Richard, senior vice president of business and corporate development at Yelp, said that while Moz was Yelp’s “logical first partner,” other parties could get access to the claiming API in the future. “We’re open to it,” he replied when asked about that possibility.

    Moz’s Dudley Carr said that they kept hearing that Yelp was a “critical, missing piece” from Moz’s listings management capabilities. For its part, Yelp sees the relationship as a way to boost the number of business locations claimed. Yelp’s Richard said that claimed listings are more likely to turn into advertisers.

    Any content that business owners could upload directly to Yelp can be managed and uploaded via Moz Local. Any content or listings updates can be similarly pushed directly through Moz. Dudley Carr added that Moz encourages customers to fully flesh out their Yelp pages. “We push people to add more information on profiles; the tool identifies and recommends any missing content.”

    Data reflect that complete Yelp profiles outperform those that are incomplete or unclaimed.

    Moz customers will receive review alerts and be able to manage reviews content in Moz Local. In addition, Moz Local customers will access the same metrics Yelp makes directly available to business owners:

    Business profile viewsClicks to the siteClicks for directionsClick to call

    The new capabilities will be available in early 2017.

    What does the Consumer Review Fairness Act mean for consumers and online reviews?

    Online reviews have steadily become a part of our everyday online world and an integral part of consumers’ buying process. Whether you’re proactively seeking out reviews for a product/service or responding to a Facebook friend’s post asking for provider recommendations, online reviews surround us.

    Reviews and star ratings show up in search engine results pages (in both organic listings and paid ads), and Google recently started showing third-party reviews in a company’s Google Knowledge Panel. Bottom line: You can’t avoid reviews, because they’re everywhere!

    Additionally, research has shown that people use online reviews to make purchasing decisions. According to a recent consumer review survey by BrightLocal (disclaimer: my employer):

    84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.74% of consumers say that positive reviews make them trust a local business more.91% of consumers regularly or occasionally read online reviews.60% of consumers stated that negative reviews make them not want to use a local business.

    With stats like these, many local companies are finally recognizing the importance of building up a solid online reputation management strategy. However, in the quest to achieve 100 percent five-star reviews, some businesses have unfortunately gone overboard and crossed the line.

    Terms of service: beware of the difficult-to-find online review “gotcha”

    You know those terms of service agreements that you never read? They’re usually found in the footer of a website or buried in some obscure place where you wouldn’t think to look. Over the past year, some unhappy consumers were hit with lawsuits or charged fees after posting negative online reviews about a business. Why?

    In an attempt to keep their online reviews pristine, some unscrupulous businesses started adding “gag orders” or “non-disparagement” clauses to their contracts or terms of service agreements, blatantly trying to silence unhappy customers by penalizing them if they leave negative online reviews or say bad things about them through social media channels. Most of these consumers never even knew they agreed to such a policy.

    These clauses typically state that customers are not allowed to make any disparaging or negative comments about a business, product or service on social media or review websites like Yelp or TripAdvisor; those that violate these terms will be subject to a lawsuit or other fines. There have even been reports that some people were fined for just threatening to leave a bad review online.

    Clauses like these essentially prevent consumers from sharing honest opinions and feedback about the products or services they received from a business. Here are just a few crazy examples:

    A pet sitter sued a couple in Plano, TX, because they left a negative online Yelp review about the pet sitter’s pricing policy and how their fish bowl was cloudy (i.e., the fish were overfed) when they returned from their trip.One apartment complex put a clause in their lease agreement stating that any photographs of the apartments are the property of the apartment management company and that renters would be fined/sued if they left negative reviews about the apartments online.A Florida wedding vendor had a clause in their agreement that makes couples agree that they will never make or encourage any disparaging comments about their company in any form, verbal or written.

    The US Government to the rescue

    This issue caught the attention of New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance, Vice Chair of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee. He became concerned about protecting consumers who posted honest feedback online.

    Like most of us, Lance feels that online reviews and ratings are critical in the 21st century and that consumers should be able to post, comment and tweet their honest and accurate reviews without the fear of being punished. So Congressman Lance got busy.

    On December 2, 2016, Congressman Leonard Lance and US House Speaker Paul Ryan signed Lance’s Consumer Review Fairness Act. This legislation allows Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights regarding consumer experiences without fear of retribution.

    This consumer protection legislation passed both the US House and Senate and is now headed to President Obama.

    Update: President Obama signed the Consumer Review Fairness Act into law on December 15, 2016.

    According to the Congressman’s Press Release:

    In the 21st century economy it is easier than ever for consumers to make informed choices on which business or service to use by consulting websites and apps that publish crowdsourced reviews of local businesses and restaurants. Consumer reviews are a powerful informational tool because consumers place a high value on the truthful reviews of other consumers. Some businesses have become frustrated by online criticism and some have employed a questionable legal remedy known as a “non-disparagement” clause to retaliate against consumers. These [clauses] are often buried in fine print. The Consumer Review Fairness Act would void any non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts. It also would ensure companies are still able to remove false and defamatory reviews.

    What does this mean for online review sites and digital marketing agencies?

    Online review companies like TripAdvisor and Yelp seem to be on board with this new legislation. Yelp has even begun to post warnings on a business’s Yelp listing when they’re aware that the business owner is litigious and could bring a lawsuit or fine a person if they leave a negative review about their business.

    For digital marketers, this is all good news. We can continue to talk with our clients (or potential clients) about the importance of having a professional agency manage and market their online reviews — the good ones and the bad ones.

    What do you think? Is this a good law to pass? Leave your feedback on social media!

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

    3 next-level Yelp tricks for business owners

    I’m always on the lookout for interesting tips, tricks and strategies that marketing managers and business owners can use to improve their Yelp pages. From dissecting Yelp’s own videos about their product, to building detailed review analysis, to straight up asking Yelp for clarification on their mixed messages, I’m on the hunt for every little edge I can find.

    Yelp is far more complex than it seems on the surface. Following are three great tricks that you can use to take advantage of the nuances of Yelp to improve your Yelp page(s).

    Yelp calculator

    A big difference between Yelp and Google Reviews is that Yelp rounds to half-star increments, and Google does not round (though they do use complex Bayesian averaging). So, on Google, you can have a 4.1, 4.2 and so on. But on on Yelp, you can only have a 4.0 or a 4.5, and nothing in between.

    Because of this, you never quite know where you stand on Yelp. Are you a solid 4, just about ready to jump up to a 4.5, or teetering on the edge of dropping to 3.5? So should you be excited or scared? Yelp doesn’t make it clear.

    To help bring some clarity and help you test out different scenarios, you can use this Yelp Improvement Calculator. This lets you enter in your current rating distribution, and then it lets you know what it will take to get to various higher star ratings. You can also tweak your rating distribution to see if you could potentially be close to dropping to a lower rating.

    Yelp review removal video

    Yelp has a very strict set of content guidelines. These guidelines provide a lot of detail on what a reviewer is allowed and not allowed to do. If you are a business owner, commit these content guidelines to memory. Yelp allows you to flag reviews that violate these guidelines, so if you know the rules, you can flag any negative reviews you see and have them removed.

    There are a lot of rules, and it can be a lot to remember, so my colleague Daniel Russell recorded a video to break down the common content guideline violations. This helps make it clearer what you can flag for removal. Don’t underestimate the power of flagging — we’ve improved clients’ pages by half and full stars, simply by removing the reviews from their page that violated the content guidelines.

    Find the profile of a filtered/not-recommended reviewer

    On Yelp, nothing is more frustrating for business owners than the filter. The filter sometimes sucks in great five-star reviews that you would love to have. As I mentioned in a previous article, for any positive review that is filtered, you can do the following:

    If you can identify the customer who left a positive review in the filter, you can reach out to them and let them know their great review is being hidden because they aren’t active on Yelp. Additionally, you (and other employees) can add them as a friend and mark their reviews as useful and cool.

    Here’s the problem: For any review that is in the filter, Yelp does not provide a link to the reviewer’s profile. It also doesn’t show the useful/funny/cool buttons. So it makes it impossible to interact with the reviewer, follow them or mark their reviews

    Now here’s the solution: Dig into the code on the page a tiny bit and you can find the information needed to access their profile. Follow the instructions below, and you’ll be able to rebuild a link to the user’s profile to access it. Hooray!

    First, open up the filter (not-recommended list) by scrolling to the bottom of the page and clicking the arrow next to “not currently recommended.”

    Scroll/page through the filtered reviews to find the review/person whose profile URL you’d like to find. Highlight their name, right-click, and click “Inspect” (I do this in Chrome, but you might be able to tweak this for other browsers).

    Now, this next step may look daunting if you aren’t used to digging into code, but it is easy, trust me. Chrome should show you a little window of code. Look for the last “<li>” in the area of code it is showing you. Now, look at the line of code under it, all the way to the right. You should see something that says “user_id:______.” Everything following the colon, up to the end quotation, is the magic ID you need, so highlight that and copy it.

    Last step! I usually just open another tab and go to any other user’s profile that I can access. Then I just delete the existing User ID in the URL and plug in what I copied. Hit enter and voila! You are on that reviewer’s profile. You can now mark their review as useful and cool, follow them, compliment them and so on.

    There you have it. Three of my favorite Yelp tricks that I hope you use as part of your arsenal to increase your Yelp score and bring in more business. If you find these helpful and really want more, check out my previous article that contains some useful Yelp tidbits, “5 Yelp Facts Business Owners Should Know (But Most Don’t).”

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