Should Local Businesses Ask for Reviews?

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 writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
  1. Rich
    January 17, 2018

    Damian – I’m fascinated by the fact that you and StreetFight are supporting Yelp’s position, and I’m curious if you would still support this position if 1: you were not a Yelp partner (Yelp is notoriously known as a bully toward its partners and small businesses), 2: you realized that Yelp itself asks for reviews through its platform – in direct contradiction to its position 3: you were really in touch with the pains of running a local business 4: you read the conclusion to the Northwestern research study cited by Yelp, which concludes that “The reviews overall will become more representative…” and more credible because a larger more representative population will be reviewing (not just those self motivated to write a review – and not just Yelpers.) Let’s not kid ourselves here: Yelp needs to sell advertising and marketing services to survive. It’s how they make money and satisfy shareholders. Yelp’s motivation to discourage businesses to ask for reviews is not driven by some noble sentiment to protect the consumer and provide unbiased opinions. Far from it. It’s about selling more of its services. Why would a local business need to advertise on Yelp if it had a Yelp page full of great reviews about its business? Follow the money and you’ll find their motivation.

    1. Damian Rollison
      January 18, 2018

      Hello Rich. Thanks for taking the time to comment at length. I would first want to make sure to say that Street Fight, per se, doesn’t have a stance on Yelp. Though owned by Brandify, Street Fight operates as an independent journalistic entity. The point of view in the column is mine, and because I work at Brandify and it was relevant to the story, I spoke in this case, as I do once in a while in my columns, to my company’s point of view as well. With that out of the way: we can look to a company’s motives or its other practices, but at the end of the day the question in my title remains. If it’s an issue worth talking about, it’s an issue with at least two sides, each of whom has a point of view that should be listened to and disagreed with on its merits, not because of secondary concerns. Ok, Yelp needs to sell advertising to survive. So do a lot of other companies. Does that mean that representatives of those companies cannot take a stance on any issue related to their line of business? Would you want the same standard applied to you? Finally, I’ve heard people say a few times that Yelp has distorted the research findings from Northwestern. I encourage others to follow Rich’s link and read the research for themselves. They will find that Yelp has quoted accurately from the study, and also, to Rich’s point, that the researchers believe reviews solicited via email will indeed be more “representative” and “credible” — as the study defines those terms. “Representative” means drawn from a larger population, since solicited reviews reach people who would not otherwise write them. “Credible” means, in this case, that solicitations were only sent to verified purchasers of the product being reviewed, so they were unlikely to be spam. Do “representative” and “credible,” as defined here, mean “better”? I’d argue that the question is, at least, up for debate. And the point stands that solicited reviews are more positive, which is a statistical conclusion rather than a judgment. Let’s not play fast and loose with the facts here.

    2. Chris Snellgrove
      January 19, 2018

      I couldn’t agree more Rich. I have never met a company and we sell to every industry that likes Yelp. Most business owners use terms like extortion, shake-down, and blackmail. We even met a car dealer who bought the domain They have to be the most hated company on the planet. They are known for hiding a company’s good reviews “based on their enigma algorithms” and highlighting the only negatives ones. EVEN when a client has a paid account?? They are itching for a class action suit to be brought against them. How dare them tell businesses owners they are not allowed to ask for Yelp reviews from their own customers. When at the same time, like you pointed out, they ask from their platform. The reality is they want to control the market and they think they can push local business owners around. I know a massive automotive group that they pissed off recently and they pulled their accounts from Yelp from over a 100 dealerships. This cost Yelp hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is going to be continue as long as Yelp continues to push business owners around.

      1. Steve Puzyn
        January 30, 2018

        I thought i was the only one that felt like Y@lp was taking advantage of algorithms 🙂

  2. Steve Puzyn
    January 30, 2018

    The odds of someone posting a negative versus positive review on a public forum?? I am sure the odds are HUGELY in favor of the angry person leaving hate versus the pretty happy person leaving a 3.5 star.
    To ask a person to leave a review has been around since the beginning. As long as it is a universal offer. Good or bad let us know. This is universal customer service. Let us know. I’m sick of click-engines. That’s what these sites are. No one is buying and everyone is paying.

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