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Updated: March 27th, 2020
If you’re a small business owner, at this point you’re probably familiar with Yelp. With over 115 million total reviews and 145 million monthly users, the user-generated recommendation site has become the first step for potential customers looking for trusted information about a new retail store, restaurant or service. It’s also the first step for angry or dissatisfied individuals looking to vent about a recent experience with a business they perceived as negative. Yelp has also come under fire from class action lawsuits around aggressive advertising sales practices, which were dismissed in 2011.
Many small business owners are frustrated with Yelp for these reasons, but the site is far too important to ignore. Harvard University Professor Michael Luca showed in a 2016 paper that a one-star increase in Yelp rating lead to a 5-9% increase in revenue for independent restaurants in Washington State, and experientially, we’re all familiar with the search for a new place to eat or shop that starts in the Yelp app. It’s a common misconception that Yelp is only for restaurants, when by category they are the second most reviewed business category (18%) behind shopping (22%) and above home and local services (13%). No matter your small business, making Yelp work for you is important. A successful strategy on Yelp doesn’t require spending any money, and is an opportunity for your interactions with your customers to positively represent your business.
The first step for a small business on Yelp is to claim your business page (if you haven’t already done so). Claiming your page allows you to upload photos, add external links to your website and social media profiles, and add crucial information like your phone number, menu, hours and specials. Most importantly, claiming your page and creating an account with Yelp allows you to to respond privately and publicly to customers who have posted reviews about your business.
Take some time to make your business page comprehensive, adding any information that might be useful for potential customers. Photos are crucial—beautiful visuals are a powerful and simple way to create a positive first impression. When you write the ‘about’ section for your business, think specifically about relevant keywords customers might be searching for that could lead to your page. Users frequently search on Yelp—think of cravings like “late-night breakfast”—and information on your page is featured in Google search results; so, well-written copy can help more people discover you. As you create your business page, it’s a good practice to take a look at the pages of local businesses—including your competitors— that you’re familiar with offline to see how they represent themselves online. If you’ve already claimed your business page, make a habit of refreshing (if necessary) any information you’ve posted every few months.
You may be chomping at the bit to respond to that 1-star reviewer who, for lack of a better word, is an idiot. You might be frothing to give something to the person who wrote a essay-length, glowing review. Either way, it’s important to put your emotions on hold when you’re responding to reviews on Yelp, and write with empathy for both your past and future customers.
On Yelp, you can respond to reviews publicly and privately—and you should make the most of this feature when engaging across all types of customers. No matter the nature of their review, a well-crafted response from you will make your customers feel heard and appreciated.
For positive reviews, a simple “thank you” sent privately is a good approach. You don’t need to spam your page publicly thanking every positive review—unless they have gone above and beyond—but, it’s important to make these customers feel good about the time they took to review your business. Don’t feel the need to offer them gifts or anything else—that can come off as spammy or insincere.
Negative reviews require more thought to approach. First off—take a deep breath. Try your best to put yourself in your reviewer’s shoes (it’s going to be difficult at times). Think about their feedback; generally, it falls into one of three buckets:
Your response should specifically map to the type of review. If they have a problem that’s valid, let them know how you plan to improve. If you don’t think it’s valid, explain why—but remember, you’re not trying to change their mind. You’re showing them–and future customers—that you care about what they are saying. This is especially important in the case of negative customers who offer suggestions for improvements. Below is an example of a restaurant owner with a great response to a customer complaint:
Customers who are venting and outraged merit a simple apology—you should not engage with them any further (no matter how badly you want to do so). And you should never respond in a manner similar to the example below:
If their review is completely off-base (it’s about someone else’s experience, a different business, or seems to be written by a disgruntled ex-employee), you can report it to Yelp.
No matter the tone a customer takes, you need to stay positive! Show that you appreciate their business, that you care about their time, that their experience matters—and that you’re listening to them. Remember that you’ll be judged not only by their review, but also by the character and quality of your response. This is an amazing opportunity to represent how your business approaches customer service.
Finding a cadence to respond to reviews is up to you. Obsessively checking Yelp every day may not be good for your psyche or worth your time (depending on the size of your business). We recommend taking the time once a week to read and respond to reviews in batch, so that you can respond to feedback quickly.
You might be looking at your Yelp page and wondering why some reviews aren’t showing up, or counting in your star total. Reviews can get stuck in the “not recommended” section—where they aren’t counted—at the bottom. If Yelp’s algorithm doesn’t think the reviewer is experienced enough, the review goes there. Reviewers who are more active on the platform (more posts, more friends) are less likely to get caught in that section.
If you have a bunch of 5 or 4 star reviews from new Yelp reviewers, you can reach out to thank them for their business and explain that if they review a couple more businesses or add friends, their review will show up on your page.
You’re probably wondering if there are any tips or tricks to getting more positive reviews. The answer is no—positive reviews should be an organic outcome of they way you engage with your customers.
We recommend against soliciting reviews, and Yelp explicitly prohibits offering anything to customers in exchange for a review. They should feel natural, and you never want to come off as pushy towards your customers. You should make it easy for satisfied customers to find your Yelp page and leave you a review. Yelp provides badges for your website and decals for your windows, and you should make sure your social media profiles and customer communications include links to Yelp.
We think you can get a lot out of the Yelp platform by solely investing your time on the free page features offered. For businesses in competitive areas, it may be worthwhile to test advertising to see if it can help drive traffic. If you do work with Yelp, don’t commit to spending more than you need to test the channel—and relationship; then, take time to evaluate—don’t let them pressure you. If you’re in contact with a member of their sales team, they can be a good resource to help you out with any issues you’re having (incorrect address, etc.)—they want to earn your business. Happy Yelping!
Michael Jones is a Senior Editor for Funding Circle, specializing in small business loans. He holds a degree in International Business and Economics from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Prior to Funding Circle, Michael was the Head of Content for Bond Street, a venture-backed FinTech company specializing in small business loans. He has written extensively about small business loans, entrepreneurship, and marketing.