The Growing Power of Yelp

One would think that independent jewelers would love Yelp. They pride themselves on keeping customers satisfied, and Yelp, at least in theory, rewards business with happy customers.

But most retailers I’ve spoken to harbor some pretty mixed feeling about it and other online review services. One jeweler even took a customer to court for allegedly posting hateful things on Yelp (plus some other bad behavior). Another sued a competitor they alleged was behind some negative online write-ups. 

In 2010, JCK looked at jewelers’ experiences with Yelp, and since then the power of the review service has only grown, particularly with the rise of mobile. Back then, it had a database of 10 million reviews; now, it claims 27 million. And more services are repurposing its content. Yelp’s reviews are now on the search engine Bing, and may show up on the new Apple map service. (They no longer, however, appear on Google Maps.)

Obviously, it’s easy to see how Yelp can be abused. Employees, friends, families, and allied businesses can leave glowing reviews—and competitors, bitter ex-employees, or anyone else with an ax to grind can leave bad ones. Yelp has tried to head this off by taking measures to protect the integrity of its review system. (This sets it apart from, say, Amazon, which doesn’t seem to have any method for verifying who reviews what.)  Many don’t realize that the company has strict rules about what can be posted. For instance, “review swapping” is prohibited—and Yelp just reprimanded a group of California businesses in a networking group for doing just that. Even asking for good reviews is frowned upon. (Which can cause problems in situations like this.)

Of course, like YouTube or any large Internet company, Yelp can’t monitor all the content users post. So it uses what it calls a proprietary algorithm to “filter” reviews. And this algorithm, being electronic, doesn’t always make the right calls. Possibly the most common complaint is that Yelp has filtered a good review, but left a bad one.

I think most consumers are sharp enough to not let one bad review dissuade them, particularly when the others surrounding it are all positive. Still, even one review can drag down the store’s overall rating—and people quickly scanning Yelp on their mobile phones don’t always examine every write-up. Moreover, a study showed that people aren’t as clever about sifting bad reviews as they think they are:

Cornell researchers created software to detect “opinion spam” (fake online reviews) in a pool of 800 reviews—half fake, half real. While the software’s algorithms spotted the fakes 90% of the time, regular people doing the same were about as accurate as if they flipped a coin. 

So where does all this leave jewelers? Well, Yelp isn’t going away, nor are online reviews in general. In fact, their growing prominence has given rise to the new field of “online reputation management.” But most of the tips for dealing with your online rep are just basic business and common sense: offer the best service, give your all to everyone who walks in the door, and when someone gets mad at you—electronically or otherwise—keep your cool, and try to solve the problem. You can read more tips at the end of this article.

Like so many online services, Yelp takes standard human social behavior and magnifies it. Everyone talks about a positive, or negative, experience with a business. The Internet just allows them to be louder about it than ever before. Still, in the end, the fundamentals of running a retail operation haven’t changed. While a good Yelp rating may attract people to your store, if the experience doesn’t measure up, those customers aren’t coming back. Yelp can help or hurt a business in the short run. But in the long run, how it treats even its quietest customers matters far more.

JCK News Director