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Zero Stars for Yelp

Zero Stars for Yelp


An Open Letter to Yelp: You are publicly trashing my well-respected small business. Is that your new business model?

Dear Yelp:

If identifying cheaters and fraudsters with your new algorithm is your goal, you are not only spectacularly failing, but you are devastating my small business, and I’m sure many other small businesses, in the process.

As of October 2018, my real estate business had 148 legitimate 5-star reviews. Without the benefit of any kind of rationale or satisfactory explanation, it suddenly dwindled to 38 (!), removing my business from among the best in our area and exposing us to public speculation that the reviews for which we have worked tirelessly — over years — are in some way illegitimate.

For years now, my partner and I have worked hard to serve our clients and build a Yelp presence that reflected our dedication to them. We chose to pay particular attention to Yelp because we liked the transparency of the platform — we could claim a space on a well-respected site and expose our business to the candid remarks of clients past and present. We valued your platform as the litmus test of client experience and regarded every transaction we had with clients as an opportunity to achieve what the ultimate compliment: a 5-star Yelp review. It is no exaggeration to say that those 5-star reviews have been our motivation, our lifeblood.

Then in November, something strange began to happen: several of our hard-earned Yelp reviews drifted into the barely visible and vaguely sinister “not recommended” category. And then more did. And then still more. Day after day, we watched them disappear. We were aghast when, within a matter of weeks, they dropped below 100, then under 75, then under 50(!).

We called you. You assured us that advertising with you would make no difference, and you directed us to look at your explanation video. We called again, we researched, we Google-searched, and could find no explanation other than your mysterious new algorithm. As we watched our hard work go down the drain and found no way to stop it, your video become not just deeply unsatisfying, but downright galling. As small businesses (we are sure we are not alone) suffer massive damage due to your ‘update,’ all you have to offer is a shallow explanation that reads like a “c’est la vie” shrug.

Just before Christmas, we decided to fight back and at least try to rebuild. We notified our entire database of former clients that our Yelp page was struggling, and within several days 24 new and legitimate reviews appeared. Within hours, that number shrank to under 10. As of this writing, we have 47 published and 128 not recommended reviews. Your new algorithm has slaughtered our Yelp reviews by nearly 75 percent and cast a shadow on our good name.

Meanwhile, as misery loves company, company has been hard to find. For years, two other agents for whom we have great respect have been building their Yelp presence in tandem with us. We have been neck and neck in terms of number of reviews and quality of reviews. They have not been similarly hurt — not by a long shot. Then there is one younger agent whom we have watched storm forward in numbers of reviews in the last couple of years. We checked the Multiple Listing Service data statistics and this agent had more 5-star reviews in 2017 than total number of transactions. Interesting, no? We find a 20-25% return on transaction to review is extraordinary. How has a younger agent had a 100%+ transaction-review rate? And yet, post-algorithm change, that agent’s page is still humming along.

Let’s now revisit why my business partner (also my husband) and I took to Yelp in the first place all those years ago. We are consumers who, like many, despise solicitation. We run every business choice through the lens of of own experiences, and we therefore do not court new clients by solicitation. I know that is anathema to what many people perceive to be the modus operandi of a real estate broker, but it has helped distinguish us and made our business experience richer for our clients and for ourselves. (Being true to oneself generally does that.) Yet another reason, then, why we were attracted to Yelp — it offered a platform where people could get the inside story about our business from the mouths of consumers without the fear of solicitation — a perfect backdrop for what we value.

We were further taken by Yelp’s commitment that a business not be given preferential treatment if they advertised on Yelp. We were open to the thought of advertising on a platform we believed in, but feared our business ethos would be undermined were our page tagged with Yelp’s identifier ‘Ad’. We theorized that advertising might taint a consumer’s perception of our Yelp page by giving the impression our page was inauthentic because it was part of a pay-to-play scheme.

Now your aim is apparently to weed out bad actors. We do not qualify, and nor do our reviewers. We do not take it lightly that every single one of them has taken their time and energy away from their busy day to support our business. Nor should you. Our clients’ support is being stripped away without a proper explanation.

It appears that reviews may become ‘not recommended’ if the reviewer is not active, if their review is the first they have written, if they have not remained active, or if they got to the page through a link. We have performed the best analysis we can on our competitors’ reviews but we cannot find a discernible difference between the habits of our reviewers and theirs. We have many, many ‘not recommended’ reviews whose contributor is very active.

So you are ‘not recommending’ scores of our reviews (and no doubt those of other wonderful small businesses) because you have determined there is something illegitimate about them, which is false.

We take exception to the notion that a reviewer is not legitimate because they are not active on your site. For one, it is likely ageist. Younger people are more active on yours and other tech platforms. Our clients are homeowners, so they tend to be older. Secondly, if a client of ours is willing to set up an account to write us a review, we are creating users and potential customers for Yelp. Our work is providing you with opportunities to develop and strengthen your base. Our business is supporting yours. Why would you punish us for that?

Let me remind you of your own words. From your website: “Yelp started with a not-so-simple question: How do we connect people with great local businesses?” My husband and I have created a great local business, and until earlier this fall, Yelp was a key part of our marketing strategy. And now you have arbitrarily taken that away from us, publicly embarrassing us by implying that there is something untoward about the scores of reviews you brand as “not recommended” and preventing us from showing up on the ‘BEST OF’ pages since our number of reviews have been gutted.

Yelp has inexplicably turned on us and there is frankly no justifying it, no path to remedying it, and no sense that anyone at Yelp is accessible or cares.

And so we are yelping back. An open letter, widely circulated and we hope publicly embarrassing to you. You have earned it.


David Gunderman and Andrew Raskopf-Gunderman

This post was originally published on LinkedIn here.