Someone Tied Fines to Yelp Reviews

 The vast majority of Yelp users visit the site when they have money to spend. That’s a key finding from a Nielson study funded by Yelp last year. Of those users, 98 percent made a purchase from a business they found on Yelp.

Clearly the site has power, so it’s not surprising that business owners would be tempted to strike back when they’re under attack. However, one company in New York allegedly took things a little too far this summer, and that action landed the company in some hot water. I find the whole thing fascinating, simply because there are so many effective ways to deal with a bad review on Yelp. Why go nuclear, when there are tons of better options at hand?

Here’s what happened.

Fines for Bad Responses

According to coverage of the incident in the New York Post, a hotel in Hudson, New York, chose to levy fines for poor reviews published online after an event took place. Typically (and I’m doing a little extrapolating here, as the original document that contains the fines is no longer online) the process went like this: Couples provide a credit card of some sort when they reserve this space for a special event. After the momentous day passes, administrators of this hotel look for negative reviews online, and if they find them, they charge a $500 fee to the card on file. If the reviews came down, so would the fees.

Levying fees for Yelp

I should mention that much of this is up for debate, as the hotel administrators weren’t too keen on providing interviews, and the documents were quickly wiped from the web. In fact, separate coverage of the incident on The Consumerist suggests that the whole thing was a joke that went terribly wrong.

But still.

I can understand why a company owner would be tempted to lash out and demand some kind of compensation when a negative review appears online. It’s just a tiny step away from what other people have done when they’ve been featured in a scathing Yelp review. But instead of using lawyers to sue the people who wrote negative responses, they just put the fine in the paperwork. It seems pretty savvy.

There’s just one problem with this: Innovative responses tend to spark media coverage. That means, even joking about something like this, or fining just one person, could lead to hundreds of thousands of articles, blog posts, andTweets about your organization, and none of that coverage is positive.

In other words, getting innovative like this might be a nice way to exact momentary revenge, but typically, it leads to more messes for a company to clean up.

And it’s really not necessary.

Calm, Cool, and Collected

One of the best ways to deal with a Yelp-based problem is also one of the most obvious: Provide good service on a regular basis. If you don’t disappoint your customers, you have nothing to fear from reviews.

But chances are, there will be one person who will be disappointed with your products and services. It’s hard to please everyone all of the time, and even the most polished business falls down from time to time.

Of the 61 million reviews on Yelp (a number provided by the founder in aninterview with the Associated Press), many are negative. It’s a problem, and it’s something every company will deal with at one point or another.

When that negative response appears, a proper response typically has three attributes:

  1. An apology. Consumers seem soothed when someone high up the food chain is genuinely willing to speak up and speak out about what’s gone wrong.
  2. An explanation. Although the event took place in the past, future readers might want to know just what happened and what you’ve done to ensure that it won’t happen again.
  3. Professional courtesy. Attacks and vitriol make companies look less than professional, and they might drive consumers away. No one likes to be yelled at, and if consumers think you like to yell, they might to stay away in case they become a target for your anger.

Special Considerations

Typically, following the response outline I’ve provided here keeps companies out of hot water with future consumers. But it isn’t the best response to use when the original post has no basis in fact.

It sounds paranoid, but it can happen. Competitors sometimes post reviews of companies they disagree with, writing reviews of services, products or décor issues just to siphon off a little business. When that happens, the Yelp terms of service hold some answers. Those terms clearly state that reviews can’t be either fake or defamatory. They must be true, and they must be civil.

Similarly, the Yelp content guidelines (which are incorporated into those terms of service) mandate that reviews should begin with a firsthand experience of a consumer. In other words, something must have happened in order for a review to begin. Competitors hoping to win doesn’t count. Neither does a personal vendetta. Neither does a joke. Something real had to start the process.

When bogus reviews appear, Yelp’s official stance is neutral. The website writers suggest administrators don’t monitor the site and don’t have the authority to take things down. However, business owners can flag reviews as inappropriate. That little flag alerts Yelp that something is suspicious about the review, and theoretically, that review could be removed if it’s fraudulent.

Bad Ideas

Since flags aren’t guaranteed to force Yelp to take down reviews, some execs have chosen to fight back by buying positive reviews from other consumers. Again, this is a terrible idea.

The terms of service that could help during an attack will get companies that try to game the system by buying reviews. It’s a frowned upon activity, and often, it results in penalties that could hurt. For example, the site might block or remove all positive reviews and leave only the nasty stuff behind. That could make a company’s reputation fall yet further.

There is one small workaround. Companies with loyal customers and open lines of communication can use subtle reminders to ask clients to share their stories on Yelp. It’s risky, but I’ve seen it work. If customers are told, “We’d love for you to share your stories on a website like Yelp. We’d appreciate your help!” that’s not a paid sponsorship or a push. It’s just a reminder, and it’s totally legit.

Monitoring is Key

All of these solutions I’m providing rely on one thing: Good monitoring. It’s absolutely vital for companies to know what consumers are saying, so social media staff can tackle a problem quickly, long before it explodes.

Tools like Mention and Google Alerts can help in a general way, but there are other reputation management tools provided by private companies (full disclosure: my company provides a tool like this) that are specifically focused on online review sites, and they might provide a more granular view of the sorts of problems endemic on Yelp.