Using Yelp! As a Form of Alternative Dispute Resolution?

legal marketing, social mediaYelp! Yelp! Yelp! what a nightmare. I seriously doubt the company can last with what many users believe is its unfair system that forces consumers and businesses to be regular Yelpers or likely have their reviews buried. What we do see is that business owners are seeing their Google Local and Yahoo! Local results fall in favor of businesses that figured out how to seemingly manipulate the Yelp! algo.

The only viable way to do that we have found is to try and only get clients from Yelp!, which is the whole idea right? Spend tons of money advertising on Yelp! and you get Yelpers who are already active users. Some of these people are called “Elite” Yelpers. But business owners and their spouses are not allowed to be Elite Yelpers so don’t even waste your time if that is the case. But that is a discussion for another time.  So with that intro out of the way, what about Joe Public?


Can You Use Yelp! To Your Advantage as a Consumer and Avoid Lawsuits?

  1. The Set Up

First, you need to understand the basic set up in using Yelp!, or you are really wasting your time. Even lawyers like me want to avoid court. It is a terrible waste of time in many many cases. It also uses public resources we simply do not have, at least in California. Of course, as discussed above, using Yelp! to avoid lawsuits comes at a cost. You must have a Yelp! account, you also probably can’t share the same IP address and computer as a business owner (Do you Yelp! from work, a Starbucks Coffee where an owner has also logged in to claim their business on Yelp!, etc.?)

If you don’t have a “clean” IP and account history so to speak, it is highly unlikely your reviews will even stay live based upon the reports I have heard. Almost all the reviews for the law firm I work for are filtered even though they are legit (see here.) . But wait you say, “when I am logged in I can see all my reviews.” Ok fine, now copy and paste the url of the page you are on and log out and then paste it into your browser. 9 times out of 10 this is what I see, or a reasonable facsimile:

22 other reviews that are not currently recommended

In the above example, you see the reviews from my clients that are not recommended. As you can see, presently, Ehline Law Firm PC has 7 live reviews and 22 reviews that are NOT RECOMMENDED by who? Not recommended by Yelp! that’s who. So I called the Yelp! rep and the rep said:

“those reviews are too close in time, so they must be fake according to our algo,” or words to that effect. Seriously? So I explained that we recently had done some charities, outreach and email campaigns to: “check us out on Yelp!,” just like we thought Yelp! wanted. The response, classic.

“Just add our badge to your site and don’t ask people to check you out anymore.”

Seriously? Of course, an advertising rep will “contact you shortly.” In other words, drive traffic and PageRank to Yelp! and maybe a few of your reviews will go live if all the other secret sauce factors are present. OR just spend a ton of money on Yelp! ads and we will send you Elite Yelpers as clients, and their reviews will go and stay live? If not, we have a deal with Yahoo!, and good luck seeing your results for local search display there anytime soon since they are now driven by Yelp!

Well at least I have another reason not to use Yahoo! anymore. Ok ok, so now that is out of the way, assuming you have made it through the minefield of factors above as a CONSUMER, yes, there are ways to get justice on Yelp! if you are an active Yelper. And no, don’t think you can get elite Yelper status and make tons of money. If you get caught selling reviews, you are toast and so are your reviews. I personally suspect that many of the elite Yelpers do profit handsomely.

I would too if I had an algorithm that basically made it impossible to rank on my site unless everyone was paying me, or increasing my click through rates. I mean its no wonder that brick and mortar locations have been blown out in favor of Yelp! Google and Yahoo! favor sites that get a lot of traffic right?

If You Can’t Beat Em Join Em?

Many law firms are using Yelp! paid search now. But the stories I am hearing are that when the ads stop running, reviews start to disappear. I am sure it is just a coincidence right? I mean Yelp! has been sued many times and courts have thrown out the cases right? So if you are bold enough and rich enough to advertise on Yelp! maybe you will be at an advantage, maybe not, unless you keep advertising.

What About Consumers – How Can they Benefit from Yelp! and Avoid Court?

Ok now that you see the roadblocks preventing success for a business owner not willing to pay Yelp! money, you can see that it may not be worth it for you to bother with Yelp! as a business. But I am going to include a personal consumer experience I had with South Bay BMW, who our law firm had leased a car from, in order to show you how we were able to recover $1,000.00 instead of going to small claims court. The screenshot below has the history of our interactions with BMW Financial and the Dealership itself.

The Negative One Star Yelp! Review of South Bay BMW

Consumer Review on Yelp!

Lucky for me, my negative review went live long enough for the South Bay BMW reputation management person to reach out to me. Unfortunately for South Bay BMW the review was not buried by Yelp! until after the problem was resolved. Here is the link to the actual page to South Bay BMW on Yelp! As you can see, my review is now buried because Yelp! decided it was either fake, or offered no value, or whatever. Obviously whatever the reason, my suspicion is that if BMW never had seen the review in the Recommended Reviews section, I would not have had a chance at resolving this.

Why do I say that? Simple, I have left many messages with BMW and had many phone calls and basically was BLOWN OFF. It was not until I publicly stated my concerns that the following events took place. You can read Brodkin’s response on Yelp! Oh wait, the review was buried by Yelp! so maybe not. But go ahead and see if you can find it here:

643 other reviews that are not currently recommended

Of course Yelp! says that something like 75% of reviews are recommended right? Let’s see if that is true for BMW. Do the math.  403 reviews are recommended and 643 reviews are not. Maybe Yelp! meant that 25% to 35% are recommended and 75% or so are not? I can’t figure it out. Can you? Does your head hurt yet? Mine does.

Anyways, you can see my frustration that has prevented me and MANY other lawyers I know from sending Yelp! one dime as a business owner. Even as a consumer, it appears that Yelp! is biased against business owners who are ALSO consumers, saying that there is a potential conflict of interest in letting them become “Elite Yelpers.”  I have had shouting matches with Yelp! sales people over this, who promptly point out that back in 2008 I tried to review my own business.

The first problem is it is not my OWN business, it is a law corporation that I MANAGE and that has also represented me in the past. But ok, fine, the review is buried. Now what? The second tactic they are using is assuming facts that are simply not true, complaining that customers reviewed us that the algo assumes could actually even be our firm that did the reviews. Back then our business, just like many other online and even offline businesses were clueless about Yelp! In fact many companies had clients create Yelp! accounts on the spot, such as with Yahoo or Google email. So in our case, as clients with no emails accounts picked up their settlement checks, we helped set them up, and they reviewed us right there from our PC and IP address. I believe this was a pretty normal practice in years past. Of course, most of our clients have jobs, and barely have time for Facebook, let alone time enough to act as professional Yelpers.

In any event, it is now safe to say that Yelp! has a say in what your business model must be if you want to rank online. Basically, you now must make sure that your clients Yelp! a lot, or their review of your business will be buried. Of course, Yelp! says your clients cannot be your friends or even peers? Well, what they say is basically a vague and ambiguous, subjective test. After all, other Yelp articles suggest you should follow and add people who have, or may review you in the future. So it appears that this gives Yelp! a lot of leeway in potentially strong-arming  consumers to perhaps buy advertising, in order to make sure they don’t lose traffic from Yelp!, such as when a manual reviewer at Yelp! decides that you are in violation. In fact, Yelp! has even gone so far as suing a lawyer, for inter alia, having friends with other businesses review his law firm, which Yelp! apparently assumes is a “fake review.”

Was I Able to Use Yelp! To Get Money and Avoid Court – Yes and Here is a Screenshot of the $1,0000.00 Check

Yelp! says you cannot pay to have negative reviews removed. I guess they’re right, since Yelp! went ahead and UN-reccomended by negative review of BMW on their own.  But before that happened, Mark Brodkin and I had come to a resolution and I first wanted to thank him for seeing what went down here and fixing my problem. So yes, Yelp!, along with some lawyering got me what I feel is a fair resolution. And no, at no time did Brodkin ever ask me to remove the review and I have not done so.

  • Legal Disclaimer

With that disclaimer out of the way, here is another one. Don’t think you can just write a negative review and face no consequences. Don’t consider anything I have said as being legal advice either. IT IS NOT! You can be sued for defamation, and Yelp! in particular, and probably even BMW would not hesitate in suing you, unless what you say is truthful. Heck even if it is truthful, they could always sue anyways and force you a lot of legal fees and troubles.

For some, going to court may be a better option since statements made in pleadings are generally not considered defamatory for purposes of litigation. Is this making sense for far? In any event, I have now provided you with a consumer experience about a legal issue I had with a company, and technically you could check me out here on Yelp! where you will see 22 reviews buried and 7 are live. Interesting to note, every-time I speak with a Yelp! rep and decide not to buy ads, another positive review seems to disappear. But I am sure that is just a coincidence.

Oh wait, let’s get back on track here. Here is a copy of the check from South Bay BMW.

  • Copy of the $1,000 Check from BMW

Here it is.

Success Using Yelp!

I personally think I got lucky here, because I doubt after the review was buried by Yelp! I would have had any negotiating power with BMW, or at least it would have been seriously diminished. Was it worth my time, probably not. Did I learn enough about Yelp! to know that Yelp! is skewed towards what helps Yelp! and only Yelp!? I think so.

Could someone come along with a fairer algorithm and take out Yelp! I certainly think so. And if you are a programmer and or developer, I want you to reach out to me asap!

  • Other Closing Thoughts

This is just my opinion and it has not been tested in court as far as I know, but when Yelp! decides what reviews, both negative and positive to reccomend, I believe it may be opening itself to a lawsuit on many levels. The internet law shields a site like Rip Off Report when it republishes something from a third party about you. But when an advertiser involves itself in deciding when and if that review is “Recommended,” could it lose the shield? Could it now be a party to the review, just as if it were to edit the review or skew it one way or another? Are there any lawyers out there who agree that recommending something that is false or defamatory may lose the re-publisher its shield?

I am going to reach out to Yelp! and I invite Yelp! to respond to my invitation and will gladly print their point of view. The bottom line, many consumers and business owners are fed up with Yelp! and believe it is unfair. You as the consumer must ultimately decide if you think the system is fair. One thing is certain, a single use account, like most of my clients who work, and are not “professional,” or regular Yelpers will often see their reviews go “poof.” Is it really even worth the time?

Please comment and chime in. I want to hear about your Yelp! successes or failures as we attempt to unravel the positives and negatives of Yelp! Rest assured, Circle of Legal Trust does not sell advertising and is a non commercial, informational organization of attorneys who help eachother and consumers. The goal is a safer, fairer playing field for all comers.




Posts by Michael Ehline

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