Yelp Elite Saga Ends in Blaze of Glory

After 3 years as an “Elite” Yelper, I get this email out of the blue:

I’m only surprised by how long it took them to wisen up.  My Yelping was an experiment from the very beginning.  Also, since my profile has had a link to my site from day one.

Of course, their “conflict of interest” concern is ridiculous in my case. An unethical business owner wouldn’t need to be “Elite” to sabotage his or her competitors’ reputations. And if being “Elite” makes them better able to do so, I’ve laid out the rhyme and reason to that program. Unethical business owners could easily do it, and Yelp’s either unable or unwilling to stop them.

Which one of my deep crawls into Yelp’s rotting guts got their attention?

Yelp Elite for 3 Years with Only 66 Reviews: How?

How to Bulk-Identify Prime Yelp Reviewers with Yelp’s “Find Friends” Feature in 7 Easy Steps

New Spammy Emails from Yelp to Business Owners

20+ Depressing Observations about Yelp Reviews

Can You Repurpose Customers’ Yelp Reviews on Your Website? An Answer from Yelp HQ

Yelp Monetizes the Description?

Yelp Ranking Factors

(Yes, there are even more.)

I’ll keep reviewing businesses from time to time.  I’ll also continue to use Yelp as my little laboratory, and share with you everything I discover about how the sausage is made.

In the meantime, let us join in a glorious death-scream.

What are some questions you’d like me to explore next, as part of the ongoing “Yelp experiment”?  Leave a comment!

Yelp Elite for 3 Years with Only 66 Reviews: How?

I like to support local businesses that I want to stay in business, I love to write, and as an SEO I must experiment every now and then.

That’s why in spring of 2013 I started crawling around in Yelp’s guts, as just another local reviewer.  I’d written a couple reviews on Yelp a few years earlier, before I even knew about the filter, so those reviews never saw the light of day.  By 2013, I wanted to understand the filter better, mostly so I could help my clients put together a review strategy that didn’t just send perfectly good reviews into the grinder.

I learned some useful tidbits, like that a 3-star review is more likely to stick than a 5-star (even if written by a new, less-“trusted” Yelper), that the first review of a business is more likely to stick, and that it typically takes about 10 reviews – spread out over several months – for Yelp to stop filtering your reviews.

But things only got interesting once I accidentally became an “Elite” Yelper.

It wasn’t part of my intended experiment, nor do I have a particular fondness of Yelp.

It was also a surprise, because although there are people who’ve written hundreds of reviews who aren’t “Elite,” most EYs have written hundreds.

But then I get the nomination email in February 2014, after I’d written only 26 Yelp reviews in 2013 – for a lifetime total of 26 reviews.

I wrote those 26 reviews in a span of 8 months.

I kept up the reviews throughout 2014, but only wrote 20 that year.  Good enough for “Elite” again.

Same deal in 2015: only 20 reviews again (purely by coincidence).  Still an EY.

So even though I’ve never attended the little “Elite Squad” parties, have shown zero interest in becoming part of the “community,” rarely compliment or “friend” local reviewers, and have written only 66 reviews, they’ve kept me around for 3 years now.

Clearly becoming an EY doesn’t have much to do with quantity of reviews.  Or length or detail: most of my reviews are maybe 2-4 short paragraphs. 

So what factors do determine who gets the dubious title of “Elite” Yelp reviewer?  Yelp won’t tell you much.  But there are 7 factors that I’ve noticed (so far):

Factor 1: Reviewing some of the same businesses your “community manager” has reviewed.

Particularly places he or she likes and that you like.   I suspect this is the only person who nominates “Elite” Yelpers, so if you write a zinger review of a restaurant or some other place your CM likes, all of a sudden you’re on your CM’s radar, and you’re kindred spirits.  That didn’t even occur to me until I after I reviewed one of my favorite restaurants, which my CM also happens to like and frequent, at which point she sent me a Yelp “compliment” on my review.

Factor 2: Quality over quantity.

This one’s tough.  I’m not saying to channel your inner Tolstoy.  Many Yelpers get into narcissistic amounts of detail that nobody wants to read.  But it’s hard to pump out tons of reviews that still manage to be helpful, and it’s even harder to pump out reviews that people (especially a “community manager”) will enjoy.

One way to keep your reviews helpful – and sometimes funnier than you’d expect – is to review really boring businesses, which usually makes you dig deep to think about what you can possibly say.

Factor 3: Humor.

This one’s the toughest.  But even if your humor is the corniest since Roger Moore played 007, I’m tempted to say it doesn’t matter.

All that seems to matter is whetheryour “community manager” likes your reviews, and whether you get lots of “votes,” or if maybe even a “Review of the Day.”  Which leads me to the next point….

Factor 4: “Votes.”

Whenever someone labels one of your reviews as “Useful,” “Funny,” or “Cool,” that’s good (at least as far as Yelp is concerned).

Factor 5: Be the first to review some businesses.

Yelp wants to enhance its data on local businesses.  Also, once a business gets a review, Yelp has an occasion to call the owner and pitch ads as a way to keep the good times rolling.  Who better to carry out those two tasks than some chump who’s willing to write about local businesses for free?

Factor 6: Your re-nomination pitch.

If you’ve written at least a few reviews in the year, around Thanksgiving Yelp will email you to ask whether you’d like to remain “Elite.”

They’ll ask you to send in a pitch if you’re interested.  The substance and length are up to you.

You’ll want to put thought and creativity into this.  It shouldn’t necessarily be a rational argument.  Write it as you would one of your Yelp reviews – in the same voice (especially if that voice squeaks with corny humor).  Except this time you’re reviewing yourself.

 

Factor 7: Keep writing reviews even after you re-nominate yourself.

You’ll hear back around early January if you’re still “in.”  So from roughly Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day you’ll probably want to rip out a couple of reviews, just so the powers-that-be can see how much you care about Yelping and that you have no life.

Speaking of which, at this point you – a business owner or local SEO – might be wondering:

God, what a dweeb this guy is.  I don’t even like Yelp, and who cares who becomes an “Elite” reviewer?  I want my 10 minutes back.

Well, it’s important to understand how Yelp works if you want to get good reviews there.  For better or for worse, there is a huge human factor to Yelp.  Also, if for whatever reason you want to become an “Elite” Yelper yourself, any time you submit an edit or flag a review, they’re a little more likely to act on your suggestions.

Or maybe you’re just a curious cat, like me.

Have “Elite” Yelp reviewers affected your business in any way?

Any questions or relevant experiences?

Leave a comment!

Citysearch Local Rewards: the Newest Answer to Yelp’s Elite Squad

When I went to Citysearch today, I noticed a wee something on the homepage:

Citysearch has been in the reviews game for years.  But this is CS’s first attempt at creating a program akin to Yelp’s well-known “Elite Squad” and Google’s lesser-known knockoff, “Local Guides.”

CS’s twist is that die-hard reviewers get Amazon gift cards.

Here’s the full announcement:

Citysearch users want to know what businesses you like and why. They want to know what businesses to avoid. And we want to reward you when you take the time to provide your opinion, photos and more. We also want to provide you opportunities to earn rewards for supporting local businesses. The points you earn can be converted to an Amazon Gift Card at any time, once you’ve earned at least 1000 points. To start earning points all you need to do is create an account and verify your email address.

There are lots of ways to earn points.

  • Be the first person to review a business.
  • Be the first person to upload a photo for a business.
  • Write a review that is helpful.
  • “Send” a business to your friends.
  • Support a qualified business (COMING SOON).

Have you done the following before?

  • Review a business.
  • Vote a business “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”
  • Upload a photo.
  • Create a Guide.

It’s nice to see a general local directory get more serious about reviews, and not simply sit ringside while Yelp and Google slap at each other.

A few problems:

a) Not many people use CS.  Its troubles are well-documented.

b) It’s not as prominent in Google’s search results as it used to be.

c) It’s riddled with bogus reviews.

Also, the fact that Citysearch is offering Amazon gift cards for reviews may mean that people crank out thoughtless reviews just to score some of that Monopoly Money.  (Not that CS would be the only site with that problem.)

Still, CS has long been a site that I and others have recommended scaring up some reviews on, partly because those reviews get syndicated far and wide.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Local Rewards program takes off, and whether it brings somewhere Citysearch with it.

What do you think of the program?  Will this change your reviews strategy at all?  Leave a comment!

20+ Depressing Observations about Yelp Reviews

https://www.flickr.com/photos/blackzack00/9985685503

I’ve seen Yelp from many angles: as a local SEO-er, as a local-reviews madman, as a consumer, as a two-year “Elite” reviewer, as a concerned citizen, and as a business owner.

That means I’ve got a love like-hate relationship with Yelp reviews.

It’s a nice feeling every time a client of mine gets a hard-earned review there.  Also, I pay some attention to Yelp reviews when I’m debating where to take my open wallet.

On the other hand, Yelp is infuriating for most business owners.  From the misleading (at best) ad-sales tactics, to the aggressive review filter, to the absurd policy that says you can’t even ask for a review, Yelp’s about as likeable as Genghis Khan.

Those issues are just the beginning.  I can think of at least 20 difficulties with Yelp reviews you’ll have to navigate.  You might have learned about some of them the hard way already.  Now you can find out about the rest.

This isn’t just a mope-fest.  You’ll learn a thing or two about how Yelp handles your reviews, and once I’ve laid out all the problems (that come to mind) you’ll probably think of ways to improve your reviews strategy.

Well-known problems

1.  Yelp filters reviews – and often does a poor job of it.

2.  You aren’t supposed to ask for Yelp reviews.

3.  Reviews are the main factor for your rankings within Yelp, and Yelp’s category pages often dominate Google’s search results.

4.  There’s a good chance a negative review will be visible on the first page of your brand-name search results, especially if the reviewer mentions your company by name.

5.  Yelp doesn’t make its policies apparent enough. Its “don’t ask for reviews” policy should be impossible for business owners to miss.  That it filters most reviews by first-timers and other new reviewers should be obvious to would-be reviewers before they write anything.

6.  As soon as you get even one Yelp review you’ll start getting sales calls, pressuring you to pay for ads. (I wouldn’t suggest you bite.)

7.  Yelp is hard to avoid on the Coasts (especially on the West Coast). In certain cities – like San Francisco, Portland, and NYC – you’re probably behind a lot of local competitors if you don’t have at least a few reviews there.

Little-known problems

8.  Yelp feeds reviews to Apple Maps, Bing Places, and Yahoo Local. Your bad reviews can show up on those 3 major local search engines (and beyond).

9.  It usually takes 10-15 reviews before a Yelp reviewer is “trusted” and his/her reviews are no longer filtered often or at all. It’s not practical to ask your reviewers to make a habit of Yelping, so as to reach that number of reviews .  That’s why the name of the game is to identify any customers / clients/ patients who are already active on Yelp, and to let it be known that you’re on Yelp and like feedback (wink, wink).

10.  Yelp reviews can get filtered and unfiltered multiple times. It depends on whether the reviewer goes inactive for more than a couple of weeks.  But this problem seems to go away once a reviewer has written about 15-20 reviews over a period of around 3 months.

11.  Even some “approved” reviews can become collateral damage if later you get too many reviews that do get filtered.For example, let’s say you have 4 reviews.  2 of them were written by very active Yelpers (maybe “Elites”) and are safe.  The other 2 were written by people with a handful of reviews each, and those reviews live happily on your page for a few months.

Now you put on your Icarus wings and ask half a dozen people who’ve never written a review on Yelp to review you.  Their reviews show up on your page for a couple of days before going into the grinder – and 2 of your reviews written by sometime Yelpers get filtered, too.  The only reviews that remain are the ones written by hardcore Yelpers.

12.  Negative reviews appear somewhat more likely to stick.

13.  The first review of a business is somewhat more likely to stick.

14.  If your business’s first review on Yelp is negative it’s probably going to stick.

15.  Reviews written by people with many “friends” are somewhat more likely to stick. It’s very easy to rack up “friends” on Yelp, so if you have a ticked-off customer with many “friends” you may have a problem.

16.  Content has almost no bearing on whether a review gets filtered. It’s mostly about how active the reviewer is / has been.  Swearing (as long as it’s not name-calling) is usually allowed.  Also, the mischievous elves who man Yelp’s review filter seem entertained by the kinds of reviews that could have been ghostwritten by Jack Nicholson.

17.  Reviews that you “flag” are very hard to get removed unless the text of the review is ad hominem or un-PC. The truthfulness of the review or credibility of reviewer doesn’t matter much to Yelp.

18.  If your business moves to a new location Yelp probably won’t transfer your reviews.

19.  Yelp reviews won’t show up in your knowledge graph.

20.  You’re at a disadvantage if you can’t or don’t want to offer a Yelp check-in offer. Why?  Because if you do a check-in offer Yelp will ask your customers to write reviews.  Pretty hypocritical, as I’ve argued.

21.  Yelp has been pushing the “not recommended” reviews farther and farther out of sight. You click the link to see “reviews that are not currently recommended,” you’re shown two filtered reviews, and then you have to scroll down and click another gray link that says, “Continue reading other reviews that are not currently recommended.”  How many customers will do that?  Oy.

22.  Who becomes an “Elite” reviewer is arbitrary. It partly depends on whether your reviews get “voted” on, and whether you’ve written any “Reviews of the Day.”

But it seems to depend above all on whether your region’s “Community Manager” sees your reviews and likes them.

23.  Only the first couple of lines of business owners’ responses will show up, unless readers click the small “Read more” link. Bad reviews will show in their Tolstoyan entirety, but you’ve got to say something compelling in haiku space, or else the would-be customer never sees your side of the story.

Don’t you feel better now?  No?  Time for a cat picture – and not just of any cat:

Now that we’re both in a happier place, let’s take up a weighty question:

Given the massive PITA factor, why on earth should you still pay any attention to Yelp?

Because the reviews get lots of eyeballs, and because Yelp is splattered across Google’s local results

What can you do?

Ask most or all of your customers for reviews, and give them choices (including easier sites).  Some of those people will be Yelpers.

Link to your Yelp reviews – or just your page – on your website and in your email signature.

Identify already-active Yelpers and send them mind-waves.

Diversify where you get reviews.

Keep making customers happy.

Any observations on Yelp reviews?

Any strategy suggestions?

Leave a comment!

20 Local SEO Techniques You Overlooked (Almost)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/

We local-SEO geeks talk about the same old basic principles a little too much: clean up your citations, don’t get penalized by Google, be mobile-friendly, earn “local” links, create “unique” content, deserve reviews, ask for reviews, etc.

It’s all good advice.  I’ve devoted many of my blog posts in the last 4 years to unpacking that advice so it’s easy to act on.

The trouble is we’re repetitive.  We’re almost as bad as the talking heads at CNN.  We rarely move on to what you should do once you’re pretty solid on the basics – and there is a lot you can and should do.

(In fact, many of the overlooked wins can also help you even if you just started working on your local SEO.)

Here are 20 stones I find unturned way too often:

1.  Nail the categories on your non-Google listings: Pick out the most-relevant ones, and as many of them as are applicable. Dig them up with Moz Local’s free “Category Research” area and with my category lists for Apple Maps and Yelp.

2.  Do a second round of work on your citations. Do it a couple of months after the initial blob of work.  You might be amazed at how many stragglers you find.  Might be enough to motivate you for a third go-round.

3.  Try to find and possibly hire a MapMaker editor to join the Forces of Good in your local anti-spam war. Of course, there’s no guarantee that even a MapMaker editor can stop your competitors’ spam offensive, but it’s worth a shot.

4.  Become or get to know an “Elite” Yelper (like this recruit). Got a review that’s viciously personal, un-PC, or is obviously from an imposter?  The Elite Yelper may know just how to phrase the takedown request for the best chances of a takedown.  Also, because most Elite Yelpers don’t really have lives, Yelp seems to expect them to report data-errors (like wrong addresses), and usually acts on them.

5.  Embedding on your website the Google map that’s featured on your Places page. Don’t embed a map of a generic address.  You want Google to know people are looking up directions to you.

6.  Get a Google Business View photo shoot. (10 reasons here.)

7.  Pick the right itemtype for the blob of name / address / phone info that you’ve marked up with Schema.org markup. Or take a few extra minutes to go bananas with your Schema.

8.  Join a couple of local and industry associations. I’m talking about your local Chamber of Commerce and the sorts of organizations you’d find if you Google the word that describes your business + “association” or “organization.”  They’re often worth joining for the offline benefits, and you’ll probably get a good link.

9.  Diversify the sites where you encourage customer reviews. The benefits are many.

10.  Create a “Reviews” page. Use it to showcase your reviews (possibly with widgets and badges) and to ask any customers who visit the page to put in a good word.  You can pretty easily create a page from scratch, or you can make a nice one with a service like Grade.us.  Link to it in the signature of your emails, as a gentle way to encourage any customers you email to pick up a quill.

11.  Write blog posts to answer super-specific questions that a customer might type into Google. Don’t try to rank for your main keywords (“How to Pick the Best Dentist in Cleveland: a Guide by Cleveland Dentists for Cleveland Dentist Patients”).  It won’t work and you’ll look stupid.  (Refer to this post and its follow-up.)

12.  Get some barnacle SEO happening. By now, Will Scott’s concept isn’t new, but most business owners still don’t even try to do it.  But just start with the basics: if you pick out all the right categories (see point #1) and encourage reviews on a variety of sites (see point #9) you’ll be in pretty good shape.

13.  Use wildcard searches for keyword-research. (This one was new to me until very recently.)

14.  Lengthen pages that aren’t ranking well – including and perhaps especially your homepage. Yes, this sounds old-school, and about as cool as a pocket protector.  But I’m not telling you to add gibberish.  Go into detail about what makes you different, describe your service / process, address concerns the reader might have, etc.  Google likes having meat to sink its teeth into.  One-paragraph Wonder Bread pages tend not to do as well.

15.  Ask for reviews twice. People forget, and it’s a nice excuse to keep in touch.  Follow up with customers you asked for a review – especially if they said they would.  It’s easy to avoid making yourself a pest: just say you’d still appreciate their feedback, ask them if they have any questions for you, and thank them in advance.

16.  Include links to sites where you have reviews. (Be sure to have those links open into a new browser tab, so nobody’s leaving your site.)  Use review widgets and badges when you can.

17.  Cannibalize underperforming microsites, bad blog posts, or other online carcasses. Grab (and edit as need be) any content that’s redeemable, and use it to make your site bigger and better.

18.  Get listed on Apple Maps. Yes, everyone knows about aMaps by now, but I’m amazed at how many times I start working for clients and see only their competitors on Apple.

19.  Try hard to reach non-English speakers, if applicable. Don’t just stick Se Habla Español (for example) in your footer as an afterthought.  Include a paragraph in that language on your homepage and on your “Contact” page.  Maybe create a whole page geared toward those customers.  Be sure to use the hreflang tag if you have more than one version of the same page.

20.  If you’re a local SEO-er, find steps your clients might be able to do better than you can. Don’t just look for more billable hours; look for the best person for the job, or the best combination of people.  Don’t spend hours trying to dig up all their old phone numbers and addresses; ask them first.  Whenever a writing task comes up, pump your clients for info.  When you need to find link opportunities, send them my link questionnaire.  They know the business better than you do.  If you don’t get much cooperation, fine.  At least you tried, and you’re giving them options.  But I’ve found that most clients recognize when they’ve got just the right wrench for the oddly-shaped bolt.

What’s an “overlooked” local SEO tip you like?

Any that you’re considering but not sure about?

Leave a comment!

12 Reasons Google’s "City Experts" Reviews Program Sucks

Well, what I mean to say is that it’s going to suck.  What I suspect will be the short life of Google’s latest program has barely begun.

Google’s “City Experts” Google+ reviews program is essentially Google’s version of Yelp’s “Elite Squad.”

(For more detail, read this excellent piece in TechCrunch and this even-better write-up by Greg Sterling.  And if you want the “official” line, see the G+ post.)

The program has only rolled out to a few cities.  Normally I’d be miffed at Google for not including Boston in a rollout, but in this case I’m not too cracked-up.

Why?  Because I think City Experts will be either a quiet little misfire or go up in a blaze of glory before being discontinued not too far in the future.

I see at least 12 problems:

 

Problem 1.  The quotas.  You have to write 50 Google+ reviews to become a City Expert, and 5 reviews every month subsequently in order to keep your standing.  Not only does that tell me and everyone else that Google values quantity over quality, but it also creates an unnatural pressure to review X number of businesses within Y number of days.  To paraphrase Google’s review guidelines, that’s a “conflict of interest.”  At least Yelp’s criteria for becoming a member of the Elite Squad boil down to “we know it when we see it” (their words, not mine).

Problem 2.  It will be abused by marketers.  They’ll post reviews of their clients, and perhaps negative reviews of their clients’ competitors.  What’s to prevent that from happening?

Problem 3.  It will be abused by business owners.  Too many of them already cut corners to get Google Plus (and other) reviews.  What do you think happens when Google raises the stakes?

Problem 4.  It will be abused by unethical reviewers.  Pretty soon we’re going to catch City Experts offering reviews on Fiverr.com.

Also, will their reviews be subject to Google’s review filter?  Elite Yelpers’ reviews aren’t filtered.  But, then again, Elite Yelpers are vetted by other humans.  It’s not clear to me whether that will be the case with Google.

Speaking of unclear parts of the program, it’s unclear to me whether “City Expert” = “Top Reviewer.”  If so, then that means their reviews will pull a lot of weight in the “new Maps” rankings, when the searcher chooses to sort search results by reviews.

Problem 5.  It will be abused even by generally well-meaning reviewers.  Why?  Because there’s no rule that says you need to be a real customer of a business in order to review it.  There no such rule on Yelp, but Yelp doesn’t specify a 5-monthly-reviews quota.  What we’re going to see is some City Experts running out of businesses where they’ve actually spent money, but needing to write reviews anyway.  So they’ll reviews businesses where they’ve never been customers, just because it’s the 29th of the month and they have two reviews to write – or else they’ll lose their “title” and free swag.

Problem 6.  Google will need more of a support or conflict-resolution system to deal with the possible problems I just mentioned.  Without it, the waters will be muddied for everyone.  Users/customers won’t see the City Experts’ reviews as credible, and reviewers won’t put in the time to earn a distinction that isn’t distinguished.

Problem 7.  There’s going to be no sheriff.  Nobody will really be in charge.  It will be just like Google+ Local.  At most Google will get some well-meaning but callow intern to try to oversee the program.  Google’s all about algorithms…remember?

Problem 8.  The reviewers themselves may get confronted by business owners, especially if there’s nobody at Google to take some of the heat.  Their reviews are tied to Plus accounts, which generally have more and more-detailed personal information than the average Yelp Elites’ profiles do.

High-visibility reviews + potentially angry business owners + relatively low privacy for reviewers + no conflict-resolution mechanisms at Google = big mess.

Problem 9.  The fact that photos are required creates a bias in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Speaking of photos, what will be done about ugly or inaccurate or promotional or fake photos?  Will Google examine those in any way, or will this be another Wild West situation?  What if Anthony Weiner wants to become New York’s City Expert?

Problem 10.  Greg Sterling brought up an excellent point: what will happen to duplicate or near-duplicate reviews?

I suspect some of the Yelp Elites might join and duplicate their reviews on Google. Will Yelp penalize them if that does happen?

I’m wondering the same thing, and I also want to know what Google will do about duplicates.  The review guidelines specify that Google “may…remove reviews that include plagiarism or are copied from other sites.”

Problem 11.  How do we know Google won’t sunset the program in 6 months?  Google has a track record of euthanizing its products, both good and bad.  Anyone who pays attention to Google+ knows that, and must be at least a little concerned that his/her reviews eventually will lose their “Expert” stickers and become as inconspicuous as everyone else’s reviews.

Problem 12.  Google won’t be able to make it “cool” enough to catch on.  City Experts are Yelp Elite manqué.  At the moment, the program is too much like Yelp’s program to be anything more than an also-ran.  It needs to be different, or it will play second fiddle.  My educated guess is that City Experts will be retired or rolled into another Google property, sooner or later (probably sooner).

I hope I’m wrong about the future of the City Experts reviews program.  Not many people have been beating the “get Google reviews – ethically!” drum as hard as I have.  Few things make me happier than when clients tell me that the Google reviews we worked to earn helped them attract new customers.  So, suffice it to say, I like Google reviews.  I rant because I care.

It would be cool if the program is problem-free enough to be around for long enough that it becomes rewarding to honest business owners and to searchers.

If you’re a business owner, my advice is: if you’re already getting reviews on Google+ and (ideally) on other reviews sites, don’t change your strategy because of the City Experts program.  If it’s around for long enough to matter, then sooner or later you’ll get reviews from those chosen few just by doing what’s worked for you so far.