Probably best known for its ratings of retail businesses, Yelp is an online marketing powerhouse that leverages the reviews of ordinary customers into a highly trafficked, localized website. It’s a huge success because of the way Yelp has become a destination for people making a choice about something they need. The information on Yelp is to a great degree expected to be “organic” – real people making real reviews – and Yelp is only an “aggregator” or collector of this information.
We’ve seen that Yelp is by no means limited to retail. Professional services also use Yelp to drive business. And yes, commercial real estate professionals are on board right along with the doctors, accountants and lawyers. Each local Yelp has a commercial real estate category, and with it, potential new clients facing a CRE challenge and looking for help can find brokers, property managers, condo associations and other industry professionals and groups easily.
While it’s not news that marketing professional services on Yelp is popular, Yelp has been in the news lately for one unfortunate side effect of its business model: gaming of the reviews.
Yelp’s Own Proposition
Yelp’s business model and revenues depend upon clients paying for advertising on the site. In the past, Yelp has used positions of positive reviews as leverage in the sales conversation. Until 2010, users could pay Yelp for a feature to have a positive review displayed on the top position of a company’s page, which was seen as getting in the way of Yelp’s claims of neutrality and publishing of “organic” reviews. Yelp was also taken to court in class action suits, winning a dismissal in California against claims that Yelp’s own sales team was strong-arming prospective advertising clients by suggesting that failing to advertise would cause positive reviews from appearing altogether or appearing high in results. New suits over this alleged practice have been filed in Connecticut.
This week, two developments cast more shadow on the neutrality of Yelp’s reviews. After a year-long sting operation, the New York Attorney General dished out more than $350,000 in fines to 19 companies found to be paying “reputation management” professionals to write fictional reviews on Yelp (as well as Google Local and CitySearch). From the NY AG’s office:
“Operation Clean Turf,” a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry, the manipulation of consumer-review websites, and the practice of astroturfing, found that companies had flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch. In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.
The second development: this month, a pair of assistant professors at Harvard and Boston University have issued research claiming that upwards of 20% of Yelp reviews are fake.
It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that astroturfing, false advertising and deceptive business practices have no place in our industry. Ethics are not an option, and reputation is, in the end, the most important thing a commercial real estate professional brings to the table.
That said, I don’t think we should simplistically assume that new forms of advertising and marketing such as Yelp are tainted or inappropriate purely because they can be. Particularly among younger demographics, Yelp is reaching people at rare and critical moments in their lives and careers. Which means that the success of Yelp’s positioning is something to take very seriously – as seriously as professionals in this industry take their “old school” reputation management tactics of adding value, providing expertise and just doing a bang-up job for clients.
What’s Your Story?
In light of questions about neutrality and organic results, should commercial real estate professionals participate in Yelp? Has your office or the office of an associate gotten positive results from Yelp listings, reviews or advertising? Negative experiences? Drop us a comment and let us know.