It’s obvious why a review that is paid for or written in exchange for a discount or freebie may be biased: the reviewer might be willing to shower false praise on a business if they get something of monetary value in return. Yelp lets consumers know when we see this behavior with a Consumer Alert on the business page.
What’s historically not been so obvious for businesses is if they should ask customers to write reviews. Why is it a gray area? Because other companies have allowed or even encouraged businesses to ask for reviews. That’s because those companies care more about having lots of content on their site, and not so much about whether the content is trustworthy or accurate.
Yelp’s priorities are exactly the opposite: we care most that the content on our site is high quality, reliable and organically motivated, and we actively choose not to showcase every single review that is contributed to our site. Today we recommend about 72% of reviews on Yelp.
While many business advice columnists have long suggested soliciting reviews as a way for businesses to improve their online reputation, we’ve seen a recent increase in aggressive review solicitation by businesses. Some companies go so far as to hold contests among employees and offer incentives for getting their names mentioned in reviews or hire reputation management companies that spam their customers asking for reviews.
Asking for reviews at all, even if the business breaks norms and attempts to ask more than just their happy customers, can create a bias away from organically motivated reviews. And when some businesses ask for reviews and others don’t, it becomes difficult for users to compare reviews across businesses. Not only does solicitation lead to bias, it’s a bad experience for customers, too. Take this review of a moving company, for example:
“Impressively quick to unload our fully packed 17′ U-haul in only 90 minutes. They were pretty careful and didn’t break anything. Would be 4 stars for good service, but -1 for being unreasonably pushy about a yelp review and making me write it in front of them.”
That’s why we’re continuing our efforts to weed out solicited reviews and elaborating on Yelp’s position on asking for reviews: Yelp does not want businesses to ask their customers to write reviews and our recommendation software actively targets reviews that have been solicited. Our content guidelines state this policy clearly:
“Don’t ask for reviews and don’t offer to pay for them either: Please don’t ask your customers to review your business on Yelp. Over time, solicited reviews create bias on your business page — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. Learn why you shouldn’t ask for reviews. You should also never offer compensation (discounts and freebies count too) in exchange for reviews.”
We recently tuned Yelp’s recommendation software to put a stronger focus on solicited reviews as well. This will help us identify and not recommend reviews we believe to be solicited, including reviews previously contributed, since we consider them less reliable. We’re regularly making updates to our software to improve its performance and react to trends we see from those trying to game it, so expect to see additional updates in the future, too.
To make sure businesses understand what is acceptable and what violates our content guidelines, we’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts for business owners.
While Yelp has had this policy for a long time, we want to be sure businesses know that if they do choose to solicit reviews from their customers, this tactic is likely to fail on Yelp. If a business solicits reviews, our recommendation software is designed to identify that activity and determine those reviews to be less trustworthy, thus placing them in the “not recommended” section of the business page. Not recommended reviews can still be read on a separate page, but they do not factor into a business’s Yelp star rating.
Academic studies suggest that solicited reviews are systematically different from reviews that are left without being requested. Findings by researchers from Northwestern University state that “[C]ustomers who are prompted (by an email) to write a review, submit, on average, up to 0.5 star higher ratings than self-motivated web Reviewers.” It’s easy to see why this is tempting for a business, who views this as a cheap way to boost its rating, and why it’s also problematic for consumers. If only some businesses are soliciting reviews, then it’s hard for customers to know which businesses have good reviews because of good service and which have simply hounded customers for more reviews. Not only is this bad for customers, it’s also bad for businesses who might feel they have to solicit as many reviews as possible just to keep up with the competition. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for users to compare between businesses, and we’d rather businesses focus on improving their ratings by improving their service, rather than trying to game the system.
We’re not alone in this approach. You may have heard recently about Amazon’s efforts to deter fake product reviews and Facebook’s efforts to weed out fake news stories. That’s because companies are realizing that sheer volume of content is not always the best thing for consumers, especially if it’s biased because of solicitation or monetary incentives.
We know it can be frustrating for businesses to not have every single review they’ve received be recommended on their Yelp page, and all the more frustrating when they find other review sites much easier to manipulate than Yelp.
However, it’s also frustrating for consumers when online reviews don’t give them a good idea of the experience they’ll have with a business. Since 91% of consumers read online reviews, it’s imperative for Yelp to maintain reliable content. Ultimately, that’s our top concern, and we’re willing to ruffle some feathers to stand by our values and deliver the best approach for consumers.
We hope that being outspoken about this anti-solicitation policy will encourage other companies to consider strengthening their content guidelines as well and raise the bar for the industry as a whole. Our intention is to help business owners understand why soliciting reviews is bad for the customer experience and encourage them to stop this behavior — or at minimum understand why solicited reviews may end up as not recommended on Yelp.