If you have a business that relies on internet traffic, chances are you are familiar with Yelp. Yelp has grown to become one of the largest recommendation websites on earth, and has become a staple starting point for customers who are seeking recommendations on a business they are considering. While this is certainly helpful in theory, it is also quite dangerous when people begin trusting the results that are displayed on Yelp’s searches for a “type of business,” the way you would trust Google’s organic results. Basically, there are two ways to use Yelp, one is to search for a business name specifically to see if anyone has written anything about their experience with that business. The other is to use their search functionality to search for a “type of business,” like searching for the keyword “dentist” within the city where you live. The results that are displayed are sorted much the same way as Google, with the highest positions being the most valuable because people believe that these are the “best” businesses. This is especially obvious due to the fact that no matter what generic keyword you search for on Yelp, it automatically positions the word “best” before it when it returns results. Yelp representatives go to great lengths to discuss that there is a sophisticated algorithm that drives these results, but any SEO or internet marketing company can assure you that they are actually driven mostly by how many positive (4 or 5 star reviews) that a company has, and how many of the keywords are being used in those reviews. Because these reviews are obviously the driver, and anyone who has asked their customers to review them on Yelp has seen their rankings on Yelp increase, the logical next step is that companies would attempt to build the amounts of positive reviews by any means necessary. Yelp goes to great lengths to make sure that reviews from fake accounts do not show publicly, and will generally show the review as posted to the account that posted it only. This makes sense in order to cut down on fake profiles creating reviews in order to influence rankings, but it also becomes a problem for businesses who might be offering free wifi to their customers. If a customer is logged into your wifi and writes a review, the IP address associated with that review is the same as anyone else who did the same, essentially making the reviews all look like they are coming from the same place. This triggers the “fake review” aspects of the software, and these reviews do not show publicly. If you asked your customers to log into their Yelp account either from a device in your office or on your wifi, you are going to trigger that review to be flagged.

This is not the real issue, however, as Yelp absolutely should be doing everything it can in order to combat the issue of fake reviews and manipulation. The issue stems from the fact that Yelp is a for profit business that manipulates it’s own results to get businesses to spend money on advertising. Basically, if you have ever advertised on Yelp you are now in the sales funnel where representatives target weak positions to get you to advertise. Your organic position being strong hinders these efforts, because why would you advertise if you already rank very high? Most businesses who advertise on Yelp actually contact the company themselves, as a result of noticing either negative reviews that they want to remove from their listings, or drops in rankings that ultimately reduces the amount of traffic that Yelp is sending to you. Once you have called them, the sales process begins. The representative will generally allude to the notion that if you show up higher on Yelp, your organic rankings on Google will improve. Of course this is not even remotely true, and within the confusion of this conversation the representative will usually prey on the fact that the potential customer believes that paying Yelp will improve their rankings on YELP. This may or may not be true, but what it will do is create paid ads that are positioned within Yelp results. Nobody knows if it somehow influences the reviews that show publicly, or if it influences the positions that Yelp returns for your business.

Here is a case study that you can use to decide if you should ever use Yelp to market your business, or if you should trust Yelp reviews as a customer. We know this information is accurate because it is in relation to our own Yelp listing.

For more than 4 years, we had 4 reviews that showed publicly. These were 4 and 5 star reviews from real customers. We had never paid for Yelp advertising, and ranked organically at #2 when you searched for “seo company” on Yelp within the Las Vegas region. This position had not changed in years.

2018: In early 2018, we started advertising on Yelp by using a free $300 credit. Even though it produced no phone calls to the business, we continued it for three more months, ultimately spending $900 more dollars before discontinuing.

November 1, 2018: Yelp representative contacts us to discuss marketing effectiveness, and discusses how effective their paid programs are for one of our competitors. We discuss that the paid advertising on Yelp did us no good, and that we organically outrank the company used as an example anyway.

November 15 2018: Two of our reviews that have been on Yelp for more than 4 years suddenly disappear, dropping organic rankings from #2 to #30.

December 15, 2018: The last review that had been on Yelp for more than 4 years suddenly disappears, dropping organic rankings from #30 to #60.

December 20, 2018: We contact Yelp to discuss obvious manipulation of the reviews in order to depress rankings after the sales call, and are informed that “Yelp did a background update that nobody in the public knows about, in order to remove solicited reviews.”

Yelp is under no obligation to divulge the aspects of their rankings system, and has every right to use any method of ranking that they please in order to deliver results. It should be public knowledge however that these results are not based on any real factors that would determine the reputation of the business you are researching, or that the businesses positioned high on their results are in any way better than those positioned lower. Chances are that the businesses at the top of those results have simply never tried Yelp advertising, and have never put themselves into the Yelp sales funnel by making the mistake of spending money on that system. Of course we have no real proof of any of this, aside from the timeline and publicly facing positions that were recorded. Could Yelp have done some mysterious update that depressed rankings? Of course they could have. The problem is when this is the same story that you hear from every customer that you work with, and the process plays out the same every time. Part of SEO is keeping your ear to the ground as far as what is happening in the online world, and part of it is trusting that when you see patterns develop they are probably based on something real. You might not have any proof of manipulation, but when it happens the same way over and over again, it is probably happening.

If it stinks like crap, it is probably crap. Don’t advertise on Yelp, ever.