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Online Reviews Have Become a Business Threat We Must Deal With

Welcome to the brave new world of online reviews. Times are changing again and over the last several years online reviews have become a business threat we must deal with.

Yelp and Google and are two of the biggest players. I have five 1-star reviews at Yelp and I have forty reviews on Google, rating 4.8. I have other reviews too but Yelp is not recommending them or using them for the stars calculations. My business is under PayLowRent in Athol, MA.

One good thing about Google is that the reviewer is not anonymous. If you are going to say something critical and negative about someone you should have some skin in the game too and put your name on the line.

Yelp allows anonymous reviews maybe because more volume brings them more money but the problem is that people hide behind that and can slander a business any way they want. The reader only knows their first name and last initial so it could be really anybody. Yelp even allows two initials instead of two names.

Yelp allows 5000 characters as your public response which is about a page and half and which I find is sometimes not enough to properly respond when somebody makes nonfactual accusations against your business. Google allows even less. I see absolutely no reason for these artificial limitations. Text files do not take any space. They are not like videos. But even if we posted videos the owner of YouTube (Google) should be able to handle it, right? I believe these limitations are only there because they want to muzzle us. We are supposed to take it. Reviewers are supposed to give it to us and we are supposed to be nice about it.

Both Yelp and Google provide no customer service. It is time that Congress regulates these companies and requires them to post a number and an email on their web pages. The excuse that “it’s a free web site, that’s why we don’t provide customer support” is total nonsense and lawmakers should not fall for it. You web site might be free but if you are doing something that affects me and my business, I need to be able to get in touch with you.

If you flag a review on Yelp, you get a generic response and you can’t appeal, reply, call, the email has a no-reply address, no name of who sent the Yelp email to you, no number to call if you have questions or want to add something, it’s a one way street. The same applies to Google. They are the untouchables. They can do anything they want with you. In fact, with no warning one day last year I realized Google had just removed my whole business which I discovered by accident and I had to start from scratch. I think I had 25 reviews that were lost and they refused to bring them back. No accountability at all. 

Yelp forbids you from asking for reviews while Google allows it. Yelp is just being unreasonable here because ask any business and they will tell you that the most motivated people to leave a review are the 1-star people. Yelp claims that asking for reviews skews the results and they cite a study that is actually saying the opposite if they read the whole study and I am not saying that, other people who have read and analyzed the study are saying it, there are plenty of articles about that online – that relying on organic results actually skews the results toward an anti-business bias and so allowing businesses to ask for reviews in fact brings the whole thing more into balance.

Why is Yelp hiding some reviews? They are claiming because their automated software knows best. They don’t want to share its logic. But basically they look for several things – chances are they will hide your review if you just recently opened an account and don’t have any friends on Yelp and have not posted at least several reviews yourself. They want to increase their volume to make more money. Another thing that jumps out is chances are your review will not be recommended if it’s too short or if your IP zip code is too far away from the business you are reviewing.

So here is a question: To be or not to be? What do you do when you get a 1-star rating by an anonymous internet troll – do you reply or not and how do you reply, what do you say?

The dominant online thinking out there is thank the customer, find something in common, something in the review to agree on, acknowledge if you need to make some changes, establish a genuine human connection, take the conversation offline maybe thru a direct messaging (Yelp offers direct private messaging, while Google does not), etc. These recommendations are fine but what to do if something in the message is totally untrue and defamatory to you or your business? My advice is don’t try to reason with them in a private message. I found that to be a mistake that backfired more often than not. You should just reply publicly and state what exactly is untrue in their review. Just publish publicly the facts. For example if someone claims they had “scary interactions” with me, then I publish those interactions in the public answer to the review to show that they were not “scary”. Normally I would not make my text messages with someone public but if they make an untrue public claim like that and open the door, I will make them public along with their name. Yelp may not allow it, that’s why it helps to have your own internet blog like this one or you can publish your full response containing their name on your Facebook page and make that post public. The reason is that I want future landlords and employers to be able to do a better research on this person, to know what they have posted about my business online and to read my response so that they can take all of that information into account. These 1-star people need to be held accountable too for what they say online. The saying goes that if you have nothing good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. I can add to that saying that if you do say something bad, be prepared for the tables to be turned and you to be put in the hot seat too. Small businesses should not just take the false crap published online by these anonymous internet trolls.

I believe businesses should always respond to bad reviews. Be respectful, state the facts and the inaccuracies if any and assume responsibility for any business shortcomings if any. In other words, be honest. The truth shall set you free. And know that you can’t please everyone. It is better for the world to know who you are so that you can increase the chances for finding only those tenants who are a match for your business and your personality. I can tell you that about 90% of tenants out there are not my match. Either our personalities don’t match or they won’t like how I run my business or they don’t fit the profile of the tenant that I am looking for. I am fine with that.

My Mistake #1: If you send a standard text message or email to a prospective tenant, saying something like “thank you for inquiring, here is our web site” and they reply even with the slightest attitude like “who are you”, “hell no”, “identify yourself”, “I can’t do it”, etc, DON’T REPLY AT ALL, just ignore the message. I found that sometimes any kind of reply no matter how well intentioned can ignite these people and lead them to a post bad review. That’s because mentally they are already there, just looking for a reason to jump. I remind myself to ignore but sometimes I don’t catch myself in time and respond and I shouldn’t. This is not as easy as it looks. Sometimes it’s a gray line between bad attitude and genuine questions.

My Mistake #2: Yelp recommends that you first try talking with the reviewers thru direct private messaging to try to work things out before posting a public review. I tried that 5 times and it does not work, at least it does not work for me. My experience is that most of these people are already unhinged, entitled and unbalanced and trying to reason with them about removing or changing their review by pointing out facts is just going to make them even more unhinged, entitled and unbalanced and they usually post your “private” messages publicly anyway and your public response gets complicated because now you have to update it based on their new updates. So I say – do not try to negotiate or reason with them at all. It will just make things worse. They might perceive negotiations as threats and harassment. Just publish your public answer and that’s it.

Businesses should fight to have these internet giants better regulated. We need meaningful customer service, no anonymous reviews, no 5000 and even less character limitations when we have to reply publicly and some sort of internal or external (when needed) appeals/escalation/arbitration process. Consumers and customers should be able to post reviews but there should be some rules about it too and some accountability for spreading false information online against a business.

And finally, on Yelp if you use a mobile device to read the reviews for a business, you don’t see the owner’s responses unless you download their phone application, they force you to do that. You only see the two starting lines from the Anonymous Internet Troll who gave the business the 1-star review which when not put in context is usually highly misleading about the business. Yelp is acting in a very slanderous, unfair and deceptive manner.

There a many business people online who share that Yelp had been calling them to advertise and once they started advertising with Yelp, their rating improved, bad reviews started being hidden or not recommended and good reviews improved, got elevated and improved. Yelp, of course, denies changing ratings in exchange for advertising dollars. I won’t give them any money but the DA and AG need to get their records and investigate because if that is true that is exactly how the mafia operates – “pay us a monthly fee to protect your business.” In my opinion Yelp acts similarly to the Mafia – (advertising) money for “protection” (from bad reviews). People get negative reviews and they contact Yelp and start advertising there in hopes that this will help. Whether it helps or not is another matter but I do believe Yelp gets their money because people hope that way they can improve their online situation and reputation, a situation that Yelp knowingly caused in the first place, plus you can’t remove your business from Yelp so they make sure you need them!

Funny thing is Yelp the company has a 2-star review on Yelp.com by 10,487 people.

I had given other businesses 10 reviews which I removed because I do not want to play Yelp’s game – I won’t give them any money, I don’t check how many stars businesses have on Yelp (there are other better places to do that), I don’t visit their web site and I won’t give anyone a review on Yelp. I recommend you do the same thing. That is the only way to deprive Yelp of its power.