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Dealing with Yelp as a Small Business

As the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Small business owner Kelly Murray learned this the hard way when she stepped in to help a pet in need at the expense of gaining a vengeful client.

Murray is the owner of True Love Pet Care, a local dog groomer in Hamden, CT. A relatively new company, she founded it in 2022 and business was going well until she had to make a tough call and give a pet an unflattering haircut for the sake of the dog’s comfort. Unfortunately, the pet’s owner found this unacceptable and began review bombing True Love Pet Care on Yelp. This left Murray to deal with not only negative situations but shady business practices from Yelp itself.

“It’s crazy because I have so much support gathered around me, but that one person is just tearing me down,” Murray said. In the weeks after the cut, Murray’s client left many reviews, especially on Yelp, going as far as to make fake accounts to leave multiple reviews. Murray requested support from Google and Yelp to help with the fake reviews with mixed results. Google had removed the fake reviews for Murray. Leaving her business with a shining 5/5-star recommendation from 12 customers. Yelp, however, would be less than helpful.

Yelp’s official stance on reviews is that they don’t get involved, leaving it to business owners to resolve what they call “factual disputes.” In a 2019 Slate article, a Yelp spokesperson told the writer, Stephen Harrison, that “[Yelp doesn’t] take sides in factual disputes, so in these cases, we recommend that businesses use Yelp’s free response tools to respond and address that review, stating the facts and their company policy.’”

What does this mean exactly? Well, in Murray’s case, it meant that she was on her own to combat the fake reviews being posted about her company. After combating the reviews on her business and reaching out to Yelp again and again, she was left with no choice but to escalate the situation to involve the police. After their involvement, Murray’s client has since deleted her negative reviews, but the damage was already done. In contrast to her strong reviews on Google, her business’ Yelp page is barren, featuring no reviews. It’s only upon close inspection and searching can you find the 7 beaming 5/5-star reviews on her business hidden behind a semi-transparent drop-down window.

With her situation resolved, Kelly hopes that this incident is in the past, however, she is astonished at the power that a customer can have over the fate of a small business. Often, consumers underestimate the impact they can have on a business. As mentioned in our recent blog post on digital word of mouth, individual consumers’ experiences at a business can reach hundreds and sway countless potential customers with a review that took moments to write. Like many others, Murray worked hard, and eventually, her dedication paid off as her business came together. “That was my goal– business owner by 40,” Murray said. However, A person’s hard work and dreams can be thrown away with the click of a button. A simple misunderstanding can cause a negative retaliation that can have a destructive impact on a business owner’s livelihood.

As terrible as Murray’s experience was with Yelp, she isn’t alone. Many small businesses are forced to deal with Yelp, as its policy allows any user to add businesses to their site without permission, and they aren’t allowed to opt-out of Yelp’s platform. Presenting itself as a completely neutral and fair review site, the company states clearly on profiles that “Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can’t pay to alter or remove their reviews.” While this is technically true, this statement is misleading because businesses are allowed to, and encouraged, to pay for favorable review filtering and recommendations in searches. This leaves larger businesses with more budget for marketing at an advantage, as they are able to parlay with Yelp and improve their standing on the site without much effort, while smaller businesses like Murray are left for themselves to battle it out in their review section.

So, what can small businesses do? Unfortunately, not a lot. While public opinion on Yelp is increasingly negative, with media such as the documentary “Billion Dollar Bully” exposing their shady business practices, currently without an ability to opt-out of their service small business owners have to cater their presence on Yelp. Maintaining good customer relations on Google Reviews and engaging with positive reviews is always helpful, but when the odd negative review comes around, it is important to address the review respectfully, and if the situation calls for it, defend yourself and refute the false information being presented.

Small businesses (and especially startups) need to be able to market themselves effectively. Word of mouth from different customers is king, and while it can feel out of their hands, businesses can still help manage their image. In the digital age, it is easy for customers to access an abundance of information on a business. This is both a blessing and a curse. For example, with True Love Pet Care, the positive reviews and pictures left by Murray’s customers were great to pull in new customers. However, the customers searching for information would likely run into those negative reviews that could push them away as they had no clear way to tell they were false. A common struggle for small businesses is figuring out how to market themselves without drawing negative attention. Through Murray’s story, it becomes clear that customers can have a stronghold on the mental well-being of business owners and the physical well-being of the business itself. Getting through her rocky situation understandably caused a crisis of confidence, but since then Murray has found her stride and her goal of becoming an established business owner by 40 is clearer than ever. As for consumers, remember to put yourself in a business owner’s shoes before you post that review.

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