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Dealer’s plea for Yelp reviews backfires

Site filters majority of Big #1’s customer comments

Recently a woman needed her Polaris Ranger repaired, so she Googled area powersports dealerships and found Big #1 Motorsports in Birmingham, Ala., had more than 70 Google reviews, most of which were positive. Though Big #1 was 50 miles from her home, she brought her Ranger there for service anyway, dropping a good deal of money into the dealership’s service department and returning to trade two older units for a new Ranger.

But it’s unlikely those transactions would have occurred if the same woman would have visited Yelp.com first. Despite a plan to boost Yelp reviews, Big #1 has been put in a position where many of its customers have visited the site, but all of the reviews except two — one positive and one negative — have been filtered.

Strategy gone wrong

Initially the plan was flawless. The staff at Big #1 had worked tirelessly to encourage customers to review their store on Google, earning the store a rating of 27 out of 30 from more than 70 customers. With Yelp, they wanted to do the same.

“We reached a plateau with Google. I thought we did good with that, so I said ‘Let’s pick another venue,’” fixed operations manager Jeff Hoehn recalled.

On Google, Big #1 Motorsports in Birmingham, Ala., has built up a strong profile with more than 70 reviews, earning it a rating of 27 out of 30.

As it did to obtain customer reviews on Google, Big #1 incentivized its staff to ask customers for Yelp reviews. Customers were sent a video that explained how to post the review, and Big #1 thought it was set for success.

However, shortly after launching the new effort, management visited the dealership’s Yelp site and surprisingly found only two reviews, though they knew more than two should have been posted.

“Then we saw that ghost print on the bottom of the page, and we dug farther and found that there’s 27 at the bottom. Now here we are digging, and no customer is going to dig that far,” Hoehn said.

Under the two reviews in light gray print in parentheses, the site read: “27 filtered.” The filtered reviews — which totaled 30 a couple of weeks later — were mostly positive, with 27 rating the dealership five stars out of five, two rating it four stars, and one giving it one star. However, Big #1’s main page only shows two reviews — one with five stars and one with one star, giving the dealership a three-star rating on the site.

Big #1 Motorsports’ Yelp page has a three-star rating from the two reviews shown, though a large majority of its 30 filtered reviews give the dealership five stars.

“It says, ‘Hey Big #1 has two reviews, and the first one is the first one we ever got and the second is just horrible,’” Hoehn said.

Management was surprised at what had happened, so they decided to contact Yelp. After finding a phone number for the company, only with the help of an IT professional, Big #1 staff “was sent to about eight different voicemail boxes” before finally speaking to a Yelp staffer. The Yelp employee informed them that it would be easier to contact the company via email.

“I can’t tell you how many minutes we just sat just transferred from phone to phone, trying to get a human being there, and their response was just a big list of Q&As that you can get from their website,” Hoehn reported.


In the FAQ section of Yelp’s website, the company says it filters reviews to make sure more legitimate reviews make it through the filter while hiding fake reviews. In response to why the site targets positive reviews, the answer states, in part, “It sometimes affects more positive reviews simply because Yelp users write more positive reviews in the first place. In other cases, it affects positive reviews that appear to have been solicited by business owners (a practice which may seem like a good way to generate more reviews, but which tends to create an unintentional bias).”

But Hoehn isn’t buying it. He knows most of the reviews made about his dealership were from real customers, and he’d like them to be shown, but he knows there’s nothing he can do about it.

“There is no way around how their filter works,” he said. “We do not encourage customers to go to Yelp anymore, absolutely not.”

The experts weigh in

What happened to Big #1 isn’t all that uncommon, say Matt Mazzer and Michael Sos of Dominion.

“They’re not a dot org; they’re a dot com, so their main motivation — just like any other reputation site — the real purpose is advertising dollars. That’s what they care about,” said Sos, product manager for Dominion’s Prime Response online reputation management service.

Yelp gains traffic and ad impressions on its site through a number of ways, one of which is to encourage users to make friends and post more frequently.

“Part of their filter system, when they’re using their algorithm, or whatever they’re using, is they want you to have friends on Yelp,” Mazzer, channel manager for Dominion Dealer Solutions, said.

Negative reviews also lead to more click-throughs on the site. As Sos explains, if customers land on a business with a positive rating, it’s unlikely they’ll look further. However, if they find one with a lesser rating, they’ll keep searching, keep clicking and keep seeing ads.

“They only want to show you the bad ones because that’s going to help consumers look at more pages on Yelp, which means more ad impressions,” he said. “It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s a game they play.”

At the bottom of Big #1’s Yelp page appears the pages of other area motorcycle dealers. On one particular day, two dealerships showed up in that space, both with five-star ratings, though one only had the two reviews that showed, and the other had seven, with the two unfiltered reviews each giving the dealership five stars.

Though Yelp filters reviews, it keeps them on the site — as opposed to deleting them — because the added content increases Yelp’s SEO, bringing Yelp higher in search listings when looking for a given business. A recent search for Big #1 Motorsports on Google, for example, listed Yelp fifth.

“It brings more traffic to Yelp to have more reviews on the site,” Sos said.

Prime Response tracks online reputations of about 1,000 businesses and knows Big #1 is not alone. One OEM the company tracks has about 400 dealers nationwide and 36,000 online reviews, about 8 percent of which are on Yelp.

“We’ve seen the average difference in rating on all their rating sites and on Yelp, and they have a 25 percent less rating on Yelp,” Sos reported.

And Yelp is about to get even more traffic, as the site has signed a deal with Apple’s iOS, making it the only review site that pops up when Apple maps or Siri are being used.

Sos said businesses have reacted to Yelp’s filters in two ways: those looking short-term have opted to keep people away from Yelp, while those thinking long-term have pushed more customers to Yelp in the hopes that more reviews will show.

“Hopefully those consumers will start engaging, and hopefully those reviews that they left will start to come out of the filter,” he said.

If dealers are taking the long-term approach, he recommends they log-on themselves and take ownership of their Yelp site. With business permissions, a dealer can add pictures, coupons and a mission statement. Dealerships can also respond to customer complaints and flag posts of reviewers who were not customers of the store.

However, Sos isn’t taking sides. He says any dealer that chooses the short- or long-term strategy could make it work for them.

“I think they’re both right in their own way,” he said. “No one wants to play into someone else’s business model that uses negative reviews against them, but what can you do?”

Big #1’s next move

For now, Big #1 has stopped encouraging its customers to use Yelp.

“I would rather have 200 Google reviews than any more Yelp reviews. It’s counterproductive at this point,” Hoehn said.


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