“Speak Out” was once a popular feature in a local newspaper. City residents could call an anonymous phone hotline to complain about city services or even other residents. The newspaper then printed these complaints verbatim. The bad grammar and rage was great entertainment. I once asked the city’s mayor—one of the SpeakOuters’ favorite targets—if those comments bothered him. He told me he never read the column. “If you want me to listen to you, have the courage to sign your name.”
Yelp and its ilk are today’s version of “Speak Out.” Without your business’s cooperation or consent, these websites publish your contact information and give the public a chance to review you anonymously. Paid advertising allegedly can help your rankings on these sites; according to some, they’re an online protection racket.
If you have a five-star rating and some positive reviews on one of these sites, congratulations. If you don’t, should you be upset?
You might be shocked or even hurt the first time you stumble on a bad review of your business online. There is little you can do to change the review itself. An article by Lahle Wolfe discusses steps you can take to fight bad reviews on Yelp. Engaging with Yelp by trying to get slanderous content removed is thought to make things worse by downgrading your business rating further. Any interaction with the site or others like it can cause you to be harassed by advertising reps.
A related problem is bad contact information. White Pages‐type websites serve up business listings they got from some master database years ago and don’t do much to keep them updated.
A service called Yext will fix incorrect contact information on online directories—for an extortionate annual fee. I became apoplectic after trying to correct my business’s information on WhitePages.com and realizing the only way to do it was to engage with Yext. There are hundreds of website directories and many do not give you the option change your information without paying Yext. Sales reps from Yext plagued me with phone calls and emails for days and only some very strong language stopped the harassment.
Retail establishments like restaurants, and personal services businesses like hairdressers, live and die by their reviews on Yelp simply because the site is so popular and because reviews rank highly on search engines. These businesses often offer incentives to their customers to review them on Yelp, and I don’t blame them for doing so. In some businesses, though, it is unseemly or even unethical to troll for online reviews. Can you imagine going in for marriage counseling, and being reminded at the end of the session: “Hey, if you think I helped you work out the toilet seat issue, don’t forget to write me a good review on Yelp!” Can you imagine going online after a visit to your dentist and complimenting the way you were tortured by the hygienist?
My point is that these sites are next to worthless. Cluttered with useless or wrong information, these sites showcase the opinions of malcontents and gadflies and teem with danger for the businessperson who tries to preserve her reputation It’s no wonder there are so many sites out there with titles like “Yelp Sucks.” (Update: Yelp cleverly bought the domain name yelpsucks.com, which now directs you to a page urging you to advertise on Yelp).
The best advice I have heard is to ignore these sites, and to assist your audience in ignoring them. How do you do that? By publishing lots of stuff online that will rank higher. Blog posts, comments on other people’s blogs with links to your blog post or your website, additional social media sites like your own Twitter profile or a Facebook page for your business: these are all pages whose content you can control and optimize. This will not get rid of the bad reviews or incorrect directory listings, but it will force them lower on your search engine rankings page.
Over time, I believe that sophisticated audiences will begin to be doubtful of these websites. Children in school are already taught that Wikipedia — which serves up crowd-sourced, encylopedia content — may not be used as primary sources for research. One can hope that these kind of critical thinking skills “trickle up” to the adult world. Services like Angie’s List, which charge members an annual fee and do not accept advertising, seem to be a better model for consumer reviews. These sites create communities of users who have made a commitment to help each other find things, and the membership fee presumably deters idle axe-grinders, gadflies, and unethical competitors.