Yelp And Commercial Real Estate: Do Reviews Work?

Image representing Yelp as depicted in CrunchBase

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.

Astroturfing

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. 

The Implications

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.

25. September 2013 by Wayne Grohl
Categories: Online Marketing | 14 comments

Comments (14)

  1. Pingback: Does Yelp Work with CRE? | Charlotte Region Commercial Board of REALTORS Blog

  2. I think, like most online advertising avenues, it can’t hurt to have a presence there. But I doubt anyone in real estate is seeing an enormous return on anything – time or money – spent excessively on Yelp.

  3. Reviews work over time so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get instant results.

  4. Thanks for the information re: two developments casting more shadow on Yelp’s neutrality. It’s frustrating to have one’s on-line reputation affected by less-than-above-board practices. Any tips on recourse when one finds inaccurate negative information on a business-rating website? We have sent correcting information to one repeatedly, and been ignored.

  5. This is very interesting to hear that a good majority of the reviews could be false/ paid by the companies to get more business. Sad really. I am glad that someone took the time and effort to research this.

  6. Social media has an impact on everything we do in real estate. Discount it at your own peril.

  7. On the retail side of Yelp I have found that when reading the reviews I read both positive and negative reviews, it helps me make a better decision. If a review is over the top effusive I will discount its credibility. I’m sure it is no different on the commercial side.

  8. Although Yelp is a highly popular and frequently visited website the business model fails miserably. Yelp has taken a strong stand on defending its “secretive magic algorithm” that filters fake reviews but it seems to only cull the fake positive reviews. Unfortunately the anonymity of the internet lends itself to fake negative reviews as well for personal or business retaliation. Yelp doesn’t seem to care about those reviews.

    In addition, they are still in the business of selling advertising and tout to prospective advertisers that reviews can be “tweaked” to show a more positive outlook for paying advertisers. My quote for an unrelated business was one extra star in my overall performance for $300 per month.

  9. Good article with yelp part of social media, seeing its affect on commercial real estate.

  10. I use Yelp all the time to make decisions on restaurants, but have never used it for retail and haven’t ever seen it regarding professional services. I will try to research and drill down within the site to see it in a different light. Hope someone out there will offer a paper or site that will assist this old man with getting into Yelp to explore its’ benefit to a commercial agent.

  11. Yelp has it’s benefits, and I’ve used it as one of my review sites for my residential RE team for a few years, but the review process can be very frustrating for the business owner. While I understand their desire to keep people from gaming the system, they’ve kept several of my clients’ reviews from showing up, claiming that they question their validity. That would be fine, if they’d take the time to try to verify the reviews once the business owner tries to dispute their decision. But they won’t. They have no interest in helping the business owners, without which they’d have no site.

  12. Intereting article with yelp as part of social media. I’m sure it has it’s benefits and thoughts. Worth checking out.

  13. Interesting article with it’s own benefits and thoughts. Worth checking out.

  14. When I view comments on social media sites such as Yelp or Trip Advisor, I filter with these thoughts: how recent is the comment; more likely that someone with a poor experience takes the time to make a post.

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