Why Yelp sucks for small business in small towns…and a couple of suggestions of how it could be better.
I am writing this story on behalf of another company that is near to my heart.
Just Be is a single person entrepreneur. A woman that just started her own business doing what feels right to her and doing what so many people have told her she should open a practice doing.
What she does is mostly irrelevant to this story, but for the sake of detail, I will try to explain it in a couple of sentences. Zia, of Just Be, helps people get in touch with their soul. During a session, she helps a person put their soul back inside their body, instead of in their minds or outside of themselves completely. This comes without religious mumbo jumbo, crystal balls or a plan that you have to subscribe to for life. Through short sessions, she helps people problem solve through Q and A and guided meditations. (Her sessions are not for everyone, but I find them incredibly grounding and useful).
The reason for this article is to talk about Yelp and how incredibly counter-productive it is for her business here in the small town (pop. 28,000) of Redmond, OR.
I live in Redmond because of the people. They are down to earth, super friendly and hardworking. Believe it or not, but most people in this city don’t use Yelp at all. In fact, I haven’t run into anyone that has even written a Yelp review in this city. Most people have sort of heard of it, but it is rarely used.
I wasn’t sure why, but now I am starting to figure it out…
Zia, just started her own practice. She had several sessions with people from around town that she had met at various places. These people were not her “friends,” but mere acquaintances that she had met that wanted to try a session with Zia. I will disqualify myself at this point, because I have a much closer relationship with her.
The difference between me and these other people is that I have been a member of Yelp for years and also an infrequent reviewer. I will review a business if it impresses me and I think my review will help them out, which was the case with Just Be.
I was “first to review” (a first for me) and I wrote a glowing review of what my session with Zia did for me. Encouraged by what I did, Zia sent out an email to everyone else she had a session with and asked them to do the same. She noticed that most of the other businesses in a similar field in Redmond had two reviews at most and no one was the obvious favorite. Zia saw this opportunity and couldn’t wait to jump up to the top of the rankings.
Sure enough, three other people reviewed her business within a couple of days. All of the reviews were glowing. Wow! She must really be providing a service that people appreciate.
ONE REVIEW (see upper left hand corner of the image above)?? WTF happened to the other reviews? Oh wait, upon scrolling down, I see this:
HUH? Three other reviews are not only not shown, but they are “not recommended,” which makes it sound even worse than if they hadn’t been written.
Upon clicking on the little gray arrow, I am presented with a video that explains why certain reviews are recommended more than others. It basically says that certain reviews carry more weight than others. If you fit into who Yelp (or as they explain it on the phone — not Yelp, but the algorithm powering this part of Yelp) thinks is important (meaning the foodie, rather than the neighbor who only goes out once a year) then your review will be shown.
To a certain degree this makes sense. Especially in a city where there are a lot of people leaving reviews. The problem is that here in Redmond, OR, most people aren’t on Yelp and even if they use it, they are not writing reviews.
So Zia, upon providing her service to multiple people in town, got three new people to create an account on Yelp and to actually write a review on Yelp Wow, you would think that Yelp would be happy, three new people introduced to their product. Three new accounts and three new reviews.
But instead these reviewers and Zia are upset. Their reviews are not seen, their time was wasted and their first experience with Yelp has been incredibly negative.
Will Zia keep asking people for Yelp reviews? Doubtful
Will these new account holders continue to write reviews that won’t be seen? Unlikely
So Zia called Yelp and asked for advice. Not only were they not helpful, but they were rude and they discounted the truth of the small town of Redmond. She tried to tell them about the environment here, about how people aren’t avid reviewers or account holders here.
The woman on the phone said that Zia was wrong and that some places had five hundred reviews in town (I haven’t found those yet).
So I thought I would spot check that. I looked up my favorite restaurant here in town: Smith Rock Brewery (heck yeah I will plug this tiny brewery that has the best food in town!). Upon looking at their Yelp page, I saw they indeed have 135 reviews (30 more which are hidden). And then looking closer at page one, I noticed that 4 out of 20 were actually from Redmond, OR. 2 of those 4 were from Zia & Me!
Yelp is not showing reviews about what the locals think (because most locals don’t have a long review history) about the local places. They are showing reviews from out-of-towners.
So how do you grown a local business in a small town where your clients are locals on Yelp?
When Zia called them up and asked, they recommended that she advertise using Yelp to increase her exposure.
Thanks Yelp but that is not very useful.
In fact, Zia would be much better off if she called up her friends from the Bay Area and asked them to write reviews for her, which she could easily do, but that is not the kind of person she is.
Instead of just ranting, I thought I would actually offer some solution ideas as well. They might not be perfect, but they might help if you care about small businesses like Zia’s.
Here are a few suggestions to you (Yelp) if a concerned business and potential advertiser calls you:
Actually listen to what they have to say instead of just reading off script and being rude when you go off the script.
Have an actual human being read the reviews and see if they make sense. Allow this human being to use good human judgement to make an executive decision to greenlight the reviews in question.
Don’t accuse new business owners of spamming their Yelp Business page with glowing reviews, which happened to Zia. If I was Yelp, I would have thanked her for encouraging 3 new real people to actually create Yelp accounts and for writing a review.
Understand that small town algorithms might be different than big city algorithms. — Look up Life Coaches for Redmond, OR . The results are awful. No one has more than one review. As a company does Yelp think that a search result page like this is helpful? I did the same thing for Auto Repair, something I really need right now. The results were just as unhelpful. Same type of thing, the first one on the list had 8 total reviews, but only 3 of them (all from out of towners) showed up as recommended, the other 5 were “not recommended.”
Don’t call reviews “not recommended” as that comes across as negative and potentially ruins a relationship you could foster with a new customer.
Don’t post reviews as recommended and then later hide them under the “not recommended” tab. Just Be had 3 reviews at one point and now it has only 1. That really rubs small businesses the wrong way.
Give some weight to locals over out-of-towners, especially for people who are searching from local accounts. I actually care way more about what locals think about car service or restaurants here than what out of towners from the Bay Area and Portland think about it (no offense to city-folk…I spent 20 years living in urban areas). The opinions of tourists is different from that of locals for many reasons.
Small towns are different than big towns. If you care about building business outside of the major cities, you should review your policies for places like this. I think most people of Redmond would like to see Redmond grow in the direction that Redmond locals want it to grow. Yelp could be an instrumental tool in making that happen. By favoring “foodies” from out of state over new local reviewers, you are giving new accounts, new reviewers and new business owners a negative experience with your product.