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  • Writer's pictureMatt Ferguson

Why we're leaving Yelp (and you should, too)

In another era, Yelp was an important brand in online advertising and marketing, especially for small businesses. Founded in 2004, they were around before Google had fully realized its juggernaut AdWords and AdSense platforms, giving Yelp the first-mover advantage in the crowdsourced review and digital marketing spaces.

However, as time passed and more competitors entered the space, including Google with its tight search integration with reviews and ad placement, Yelp became less and less relevant. Rather than improve their product to compete with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and latecomer Facebook, Yelp instead raised prices, instituted punitive new measures against small businesses who used their platform, and engaged in some very unsavory business practices.

To wit, in 2019 Vice reported on a then-new practice by Yelp in New York City that involved inserting a third-party into phone calls between customers and local restaurants. This middleman was none other than Grubhub, well-known food ordering and delivery platform, whom Yelp completed an important 'market integration' the year before, in 2018. Yelp's tactic involved proxying customer calls to NYC restaurants through a Grubhub agent, which then connected the customer to the restaurant, while taking a transaction fee for each call, whether a particular call resulted in a sale for the restaurant or not. Vice reported that Grubhub assessed a 15-20% "referral" fee for each order. The State of New York later banned the practice of charging fees for phone calls that don't result in sales, as of May 2020.

As is now obvious, this practice resulted in restaurants essentially competing with Yelp and Grubhub for their own customers. When you consider the restaurants who are also paying Yelp for PPC (pay-per-click) ad placement on their site, this practice seems like a conflict of interest at best and nakedly criminal at worst.

But this is Yelp's new modus operandi. Their heyday has passed, their revenues are declining, and their proverbial lunch is being eaten by search behemoths like Google and Microsoft. Rather than reformulate their approach to indexing local businesses online and connecting them to customers, Yelp's solution was to instead attack their own lifeblood: the small business owners themselves.

First in 2012, then again in 2015, the CBC reported on Yelp allegedly burying positive reviews on various business's Yelp profiles and then approaching the owners of those businesses to buy ad space on the site. You may already be familiar with this approach to business, as it is historically one that organized crime has employed for centuries--it's known as a protection racket.

According to the CBC's investigation, restauranteurs in Canada had complained of negative Yelp reviews being featured prominently on their Yelp pages while legitimate positive reviews were hidden and marked as "not currently recommended".

Coincidentally, Yelp did the same thing to our company, Geek Housecalls. If you take a look at our Yelp page here and scroll down just past the last visible review, you'll see "13 other reviews that are not currently recommended". If you click that link, you'll find 13 reviews which are all positive. What was Yelp's rationale for this? They claim that because the reviews were left in too-short a time period, Yelp questions their authenticity, despite this being a pretty easy thing to verify.

Yelp further justifies this scummy behavior in a short missive on the hidden reviews page, thusly:

The software does something no human can—regularly analyze billions of data points from all reviews, reviewers and businesses to evaluate the usefulness and reliability of each review. It’s engineered to provide a level playing field for all businesses on Yelp. Having a great reputation on Yelp shouldn't be about who has the time and resources to ask the most people to write reviews. Great Yelp reviews and ratings should come from consumers who had a great experience that they’re inspired to tell others about.

Yelp freely admits that these determinations are made by software, not reviewed by actual humans and they claim with a great sense of ego that this deeply flawed system "provides a level playing field for all businesses on Yelp". Does it?

Yelp then goes on to admonish business owners who send out review reminders for past clients, as if this is accepted as a forbidden practice in the world of online reviews.

Let's see what Google, master of search engine optimization and digital ad placement, has to say on the matter of businesses reminding customers to leave honest reviews:

Remind customers to leave reviews: Let them know it’s quick and easy to leave reviews. Business owners shouldn't offer incentives to customers to leave reviews. You can also get customers to leave reviews if you create and share a link.
Reply to reviews to build customer trust: Your customers will notice your business values their input if you read and reply to their reviews.
Value all reviews: Reviews are useful for potential customers when they’re honest and objective. Customers find a mix of positive and negative reviews more trustworthy. You can always respond to a review to show the customers that you care and provide additional context. If the review doesn't follow our posting guidelines, you can request its removal.

So, Google's position on the matter is that reminding customers to leave honest feedback is a best practice for businesses with an online presence. Yelp, on the other hand, does not support this school of thought, probably because it cuts into their ability to push good reviews into a digital black hole and feature the few negative ones in a bid to extort ad money from local businesses.

This is why Geek Housecalls is leaving Yelp and moving our advertising presence to Google, Bing, and Facebook. You may have recently received an email reminding you to leave your honest review of Geek Housecalls, which is exactly what we want: honesty.

Yelp could take a lesson from that.

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