Help! I’ve Been Yelped!

Websites like Yelp and Google are giving consumers a platform to voice their opinions of local stores. Meet the retailers who talked back.

Janet Rothstein didn’t know she had an unhappy customer until she read it on the Internet.

Her Beverly Hills, Calif., store, J. Rothstein & Co., had received all thumbs up on the “city guide” But then last year a shopper used the website to complain about an engraving. Rothstein was mystified—and a little unnerved—considering the woman had never contacted her. Then she figured out who the writer was and gave her a call. Says Rothstein, “I dealt with her on a personal level” by hearing her out. Then she found a new engraver who delivered the “unique” look her customer was hoping for.

After addressing the issue, Rothstein, who would have recommissioned the job even if she hadn’t been publicly badmouthed, asked if the woman would change her review and she agreed. (It’s worth noting that the adjusted version is hardly a rave. It begins: “After a somewhat shaky start and a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings, I was able to get exactly what I had wanted from Rothstein’s.”) And while the jeweler got exactly what she wanted—a far less negative write-up—she is slightly chagrined that such a small problem could become so public and potentially damaging to her business.

The old adage was: If a customer has a negative experience, he’ll tell 10 friends. But today, he can tell countless more, thanks in part to Yelp, a San Francisco–based site with a database of 10 million user-generated comments about local merchants. Businesses cannot remove themselves from the site—which is compiled from other online listings—and once something is posted it can remain there forever. Customers also have a chance to speak their minds on the “yellow pages” editions of Google and Yahoo, as well as another popular site, Angie’s List.

But shoppers aren’t simply mouthing off on these sites, they’re taking them seriously: Some 31 million people per month read Yelp, says the site, and 59 percent of users of Bizrate, which offers online store ratings and reviews, consider customer opinions more valuable than those of experts.

Needless to say, jewelers aren’t crazy about being evaluated by a group of online Simon Cowells—especially since the negative notes can be harsh and even personal. But they are a fact of life in our new wired world.

“It’s so easy to turn on your computer and go to Google and put in a business name and see what they say,” says Neal Creighton, president and CEO of Needham, Mass.–based RatePoint, which supplies reviews to Google and helps businesses with online reputation management. “This information is becoming easier to access, and it’s just going to grow.”

Photograph by Kyle Christy
Gail Friedman, president of Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers in Los Angeles

At Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers in Los Angeles, customers often say they saw the store on Yelp. “We take the reviews with a grain of salt,” says the store’s president, Gail Friedman, “but people really believe them.” As with all the retailers in this article, most Yelpers had positive things to say about Sarah Leonard. But Friedman confesses that the occasional snipes do sting.

“We take it very personally, because we really bend over ­backward for everybody,” she explains. “We have a customer-is-always-right attitude. But the Internet gives people a lot of power. And people will say things online that they would never say offline.” (Friedman also marvels at Yelp readers’ dedication: A web surfer, not someone associated with Sarah Leonard, uploaded the pictures of the store on the site. “That was really weird,” she says.)

Garry Zimmerman, of Windy City Diamonds in Chicago, has also received mostly good ratings on Yelp. Yet he admits to having mixed feelings about the site. “If you have a client that gets upset, they can make up whatever they want and Yelp cannot take it down,” he says. “I have seen stories go up there, and they are absolutely outrageous lies, and they hurt.”

One Northeast jeweler, who requested anonymity because he fears the site will “retaliate,” is still miffed by the low rating he got from someone who didn’t even buy from him. The retailer acknowledges he got into an argument with the poster about whether the man should have bought his diamond online—but feels it was a minor incident that ordinarily wouldn’t require a second thought. “In the old days, my father or grandfather could just ask the guy to leave the store,” he says. “But now you run the risk of them writing something.”

He complains the review is “on the first page of my Google results. So whenever someone Googles me, they see that. And if you’re a small operation, you don’t get a lot of reviews, so it sticks out.” He says that no one has mentioned the negative rating, but “the risk is someone doesn’t come in at all after they read that.”

Yelp does allow owners to contact the people who pan their ­businesses, but this tactic can yield mixed results. Unlike Rothstein—who was able to get her customer to revise her negative write-up—­Zimmerman says none of his critical customers altered their reviews after he not only reached out but also solved their problems.

Photograph by Tim Klein for Aurora Select

Garry Zimmerman, owner of Windy City Diamonds in Chicago

Dana Smith, head of advertising for Maryland’s Smyth ­Jewelers, has found that her online encounters run the gamut. “When we see something extremely negative, we try to address it,” she says. “In some cases, the review has been amended, and in some they have said, ‘This is my opinion and I don’t want to change it.’?”

The biggest complaint about these sites is that the critics are mostly anonymous, which could result in phony comments about businesses—family and friends writing raves, and competitors taking potshots.

Yelp, which prides itself on “real reviews,” has tried to solve the problem by using an automated filter to flag suspected fakes. The system is weighted toward “established” members, so if a retailer tells consumers to post positive reviews and those people have never used the site, they’re likely to be weeded out. That is also why the comments posted on a business’ main page can vary as the posters become more or less established.

“The filter highlights the content we feel is most helpful,” says Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose. “Yelp is not a site where you can just come in and throw up one review. Because if I just write one comment, how helpful is that?”

Still, stores that have had raves removed remain convinced. “They took away a bunch of positive comments, and when I called them, they blamed it on an algorithm,” Rothstein says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Yelp’s policies have become so controversial that in February, the site got a taste of its own medicine with the ultimate bad review: a class-action lawsuit. The suit, which followed an investigative piece in the alternative newspaper East Bay Express, charges that Yelp practices “extortion” by having salespeople offer to remove negative posts in exchange for sponsorship. The ­company staunchly denies this—“It absolutely doesn’t happen,” says Ichinose—and the two jewelers in this story who advertise on the site say it has never offered to purge negative reviews. In response to the complaints, Yelp began offering users the option of reading “filtered” feedback.

The worst postings have generated bad blood that goes far beyond cyberspace. The most notorious example erupted in November 2009, when the head of a Southern California bookstore sent hostile messages to an online detractor, labeling him a “coward,” “idiot,” and other (unprintable) names. The detractor, in turn, pasted the screeds into a Yelp forum, further humiliating the retailer. Then, in a singularly bad attempt at damage control, the bookstore owner found the Yelper’s house through Google and stopped by uninvited, claiming she wanted to apologize. Instead, an argument ensued, escalating into a physical fight, and the store owner was charged with battery and slapped with a restraining order; the case is still pending. The handful of lawsuits over what users have written generally result in the comments being removed.

Photograph by Jonathan Hanson for Aurora Select

Dana Smith, head of advertising for Smyth Jewelers in Maryland

“There have been some extreme cases, and that’s unfortunate,” admits Ichinose. “If you sue your customer for expressing their opinion, you have to think: Is that the best way to resolve this situation?”

Despite retailers’ love-hate relationships with these sites, their popularity isn’t waning, and some proprietors see them as promotional opportunities. In June, David & Sons Fine Jewelers issued a release boasting it was Yelp’s “highest-rated jeweler” in San Diego.

Perhaps the best approach is to consider them useful tools in providing an unvarnished look at what customers really think of their experiences with your business. “Look for patterns,” advises Ichinose. “People just fixate on one positive or one negative review. The most important thing is trends that develop.” From that perspective, even the nastiest notes can help, when they shine a light on something you as a retailer would otherwise ignore. At Sarah Leonard, for example, Friedman reports that an online complaint about a salesperson’s demeanor turned out to be “the last straw” for the employee, whose subpar interpersonal skills had already been noted.

“A lot of people are scared of negative feedback,” says RatePoint’s Creighton. “But if you embrace it and really listen to what people say, you can use it to make the experience better for your customers.”