The study states that “customers who are prompted (by an email) to write a review, submit, on average, up to 0.5 star higher ratings than self-motivated web reviewers.” Yelp argues that its Don’t Ask policy is good for consumers because soliciting reviews leads to biased reviews that “artificially inflate...search rankings and online reputations.” The only problem with that is that the exact opposite is true. By asking customers for reviews, businesses correct for an inherently negative reviewer bias, a move that helps consumers make better-informed purchasing decisions. That traffic won’t do much good for a business who is already being punished by a misrepresentative bad score. (The company says no.) When asked to comment, a Yelp spokesperson explained the company’s reasoning for its Don’t Ask policy like this: “A business is more likely to ask their satisfied customers to write reviews, and when businesses heavily solicit or offer freebies or discounts in exchange for reviews, that puts other businesses who play by the rules at a disadvantage.” The problem, then, appears to be about warding off manipulated and coerced reviews to keep consumer confidence in the review platform. A policy that should have taken a hard stance on spammy and fake reviews instead asks business owners to stop engaging in the one activity that balances out the platform’s inherently negative bias. Yelp’s algorithm already takes a hard stance on suspicious reviews, filtering out 25% of reviews (often including real ones) and preventing them from affecting businesses’ scores. The very study Yelp routinely cites in defense of the policy actually proves that soliciting reviews improves credibility, and Yelp would benefit from more advertising revenue if business owners encouraged customers to use the site more often. So what’s a business owner to do? If you already have a great Yelp score, it may not be worth requesting reviews of your customers, even if you do it in a fair and balanced way.
Yelp announced last week that it would begin doubling down on its “Don’t Ask” policy, penalizing businesses that show signs of “organized review solicitation” by demoting their pages in the platform’s search results.
The company has repeatedly defended its policy (here, here, and here) by citing a 2016 research study from Northwestern University. The study states that “customers who are prompted (by an email) to write a review, submit, on average, up to 0.5 star higher ratings than self-motivated web reviewers.”
Yelp argues that its Don’t Ask policy is good for consumers because soliciting reviews leads to biased reviews that “artificially inflate…search rankings and online reputations.”
The only problem with that is that the exact opposite is true.
Anonymous platforms have a tendency to skew toward the negative. Take, for example, the anything-goes, troll-like behavior that’s become so popular on the forum 4chan. Business owners have long complained of a negative review bias on Yelp, where angry and disgruntled customers are more likely to organically volunteer their thoughts than their satisfied counterparts
Ironically, the study Yelp uses to defend its policy actually says the exact same thing. According to the study, “self-motivated reviewers are more likely to be dissatisfied” leaving many businesses’ Yelp pages with a misrepresentative collection of poor reviews.
How to solve the problem? According to the study’s authors, review solicitation.
“[S]ending email prompts taps into an entirely new segment of the purchasing population without disturbing the population that is already reviewing, making the new set of reviews more representative.”
In the end, the most insidious form of biased content on the site is not solicited reviews, and not even fake or manipulated reviews, but a self-selected group of dissatisfied customers who are more likely to write reviews than any other group of people. By asking customers for reviews, businesses correct for an inherently negative reviewer bias, a move that helps consumers make better-informed purchasing decisions.
Why Does Yelp Stop Businesses From Soliciting Reviews?
To make money? Maybe. After all, Yelp does profit when negative reviews drive desperate business owners to buy from the review site.
“The perception that paying Yelp will get you some ‘in’ is out there,” explains Josh Rubin, Managing Partner of Post Modern Marketing. “And it’s true to an extent. As a paid advertiser, you get an account rep who will help you with your page and give you tips on flagging false reviews.”
True as that may be, Yelp’s interference in review solicitation doesn’t make economic sense long-term. The company’s revenue model doesn’t benefit directly from bad reviews — that is, its ads don’t help remove or improve negative reviews, they just drive more traffic to a business’ Yelp page. That traffic won’t do much good for a business who is already being punished by a misrepresentative bad score.
I would be remiss not to mention that Yelp has battled years of extortion claims from business owners who say the company uses high-pressure sales tactics, threatening to raise or drop ratings depending on whether they advertised with the review site. The allegations are so widespread and have endured for so long that the company even has a page on its website dedicated to answering the question “Does Yelp extort small businesses?” (The company says no.)
Call me naive, but I agree. I find…