Should Local Businesses Ask for Reviews?

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On the surface, it might seem quite innocent. A customer visits your place of business. Once the business transaction is complete, you ask whether the customer would be willing to leave you a review on Google, Yelp, Facebook or some other site. You haven’t asked them to write a positive review necessarily. You haven’t specified what they should say. You certainly haven’t offered to pay them for the review with cash, a discount, or some other incentive. You’ve simply asked for a review, hoping that at least some customers will follow up by writing one.

For a few years now, policies around this practice, commonly known as review solicitation, have differed from site to site. It’s safe to say though that many sites have been fairly lenient about asking for reviews, some going so far as to encourage the practice. The notable exception is Yelp. In Yelp’s view, there’s a slight but crucial difference between making the customer aware that they can visit Yelp to write a review on the one hand, and soliciting that review on the other.

Here’s Yelp’s own statement on the subject: “Businesses should not ask for or solicit reviews on Yelp, as it leads to deceptively biased content. This includes asking friends, family, or customers to write reviews; offering incentives or freebies in exchange for reviews; or working with companies that send review solicitation emails.”

To be clear, Yelp still encourages businesses to use “Find us on Yelp” window clings and other collateral that help with awareness. “You want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” the company says. Presumably they’d even have no objection to the elaborate four-screen display I spotted recently at the Wheel Warehouse in Orange, California:

At the same time, Yelp firmly supports the theory that asking for reviews promotes bias. In a blog post on the topic published last January, the company suggests that not only are businesses more likely to ask for reviews from happy customers, but also that asking for reviews, regardless of whom you ask, tends to skew things in an artificially positive direction. In other words, customers who are conscious that they’re writing a review in response to a request may go easier on the business than those who write of their own volition.

In promoting this idea, Yelp has gone so far as to warn reputation management companies not to engage in review solicitation. Late last year, Yelp sent notices to several such companies, stating in part: “Soliciting reviews for your clients is an illicit tactic that biases their online reputations and search rankings, thus harming consumers, other businesses, and the overall search ecosystem.” In the same notice, Yelp says it has begun contacting specific businesses who are suspected of soliciting reviews, in order to notify them that asking for reviews violates Yelp’s policies and that these businesses may suffer if their reviews are flagged by Yelp’s algorithm.

My company, Brandify — Street Fight’s parent company — is a Yelp Knowledge partner. As a partner, we’ve agreed to reinforce Yelp’s position that businesses should not ask for reviews on Yelp or any other third party platform. Though some have complained that Yelp’s position regarding unaffiliated third party platforms is an overreach, our decision to support that stance is informed by a couple of important points.

First, we still encourage businesses to solicit first party reviews. We see no issue with asking for reviews specifically for the purpose of gathering consumer feedback or publishing review content to your own website. This practice has nothing to do with the question of building a trustworthy consumer reviews platform, and is more closely in line with customer surveys and other well-established methods of gathering feedback. In this context, a relationship with the brand is already implied, so the problem of bias ceases to be relevant. We think consumers understand that the brand wouldn’t directly ask for feedback without expecting an honest response.

Second, we agree that review sites won’t retain their generally trustworthy reputations if readers sense bias in reviews. It may be impossible to police the practices of every business, but generally encouraging them to maintain a hands-off approach should help to ensure that authors are self-motivated and objective. Personally, I’d say that companies who have made moves in the opposite direction have tended to dilute the value of their reviews, such as Amazon, which allows publication of paid reviews as long as the reviewer is upfront about it.

Third, Yelp is too important to leave out of the mix. Review solicitation has been a fairly common practice among reputation management companies for the past few years, and there’s no question that the solicitation debate has two reasonable sides. But in choosing to work within Yelp’s parameters, we feel we’re gaining far more than we would lose by choosing otherwise. In the world of reputation management for local businesses, Yelp reviews remain a critical touchstone.

Finally, as a more general point, it’s worth reflecting on the mission of reputation management services. A greater number of positive reviews will undoubtedly help any business, but there are no real shortcuts. Get your customers to love you by providing great service, and the good reviews will follow. Reputation management services should focus on helping businesses understand what consumers are saying and engage with reviewers by responding. Unbiased review content is a true goldmine for the brand who works with a reputation company to glean deep insights about consumer sentiment offered by consumers themselves for free.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.