The last time I was in my hometown, I visited a new Japanese restaurant. I liked the place so much that I wrote a review on Yelp, exclaiming that the sushi was delectable, the servers were kind, and the atmosphere was cool.

Bet you'd like someone to say that sort of stuff about your business on the internet, right?

But without knowing how reviewers think and how review sites work, Yelp can be a scary place for local small businesses. The potential for negative reviews gives some the heebie jeebies! We sat down with Damien Smith, the Marketing Director for Yelp in Boston, to find out what small business owners need to know.

Damien's advice boils down to one thing: the conversation is happening. Just as small business owners are mindful of concerns, compliments, and constructive criticism mentioned by customers when they're in their store or on the phone, the same attention should be paid to those who  share their feedback online.

After all, many of your customers are looking you up online before they buy from your website or visit your store, making online reviews extremely important.

Here's what Damien thinks small business owners should know:

Learn About Review Sites & Reviewers

Because conversations about your business are constantly happening online, it's essential that you be where your customers are. You need to learn how sites like Yelp work, which websites your customers are on, and how to respond to complaints.

'These are your customers giving feedback and sharing their experiences to an audience of 117 million people a month (as of Q3 2013). And they're not coming to the site or using the mobile app to window shop – 82% of those visiting Yelp do so when they intend to buy a good or service.'

Yelp is built on our community of real people sharing real reviews, which means Yelp Boston is going to be as unique as Yelp Albuquerque or Yelp Paris. But what you'll find consistently from market to market is a foundation of educated men and women who are web savvy and the default taste-makers in their circles, the sort of people you'd want to explore a new city with.

Sure, sometimes people are just complainers, but most of the time Yelpers are people that feel passionately about the businesses they frequent in the cities where they live and visit.

Coping with Negative Reviews

Nobody likes to see negative stuff out there, so Damien recommends crying into a pillow. Just kidding!

The plain and simple truth is: you can't please everyone all of the time. Negative reviews happen, and they're useful in identifying potential areas of improvement. Approaching them with an entrepreneurial curiosity and an open mind is paramount to handling them and maintaining a cool head.

Knowing that some people were born to complain, it's best to take note of trends in multiple reviews as opposed to putting too much stake in any single one. For example, if many people are complaining about your rude staff, that's a trend-- it's time to figure out a way to improve the situation.

The worst thing you can do when you see a negative review is sit there and let it fester. Yelp's free suite of tools for business owners will let you respond publicly or privately to a review, which is incredibly useful in addressing factual inconsistencies or offering insight in to a particular situation.

Here's a good example of a response to a review (notice that the review isn't particularly negative):


Remember, any response you give shows you care about the customer experience and are committed to improvement.

If you need some advice on how to respond to negative reviews, check out Using Yelp and Other Sites to Get Customer Reviews, where we've posted more examples.

So-So Reviews vs. No Reviews

Is it better to have so-so reviews or no reviews? It's the age old is 'any press good press' vs. 'no news is good news' battle! While its disappointing to have people feel so-so about your services, it's ultimately better to have so-so reviews.

So-so reviews demonstrate two things:

  1. A business' balance of strengths and weaknesses, which translates to opportunities for improvement

  2. Your customers care enough to share this feedback. While super fans will gush, and haters gonna hate, the so-so reviews are written by people who care enough to help you succeed.

Having so-so reviews is better than no reviews because you have information about what your customers want. You can improve your services based on so-so reviews, but it's hard to give customers what they want if they're not telling you.

That Pesky Algorithm that Hides Reviews

Yelp has gotten a lot of press about their algorithm that hides reviews, especially since small business owners get miffed when positive ones get filtered.

Damien explained that humans use our own version of a recommendation algorithm in our day-to-day life-- we value the opinions of some, but not others-- so it only makes sense that Yelp would incorporate the same functionality.

But fear not! That pesky algorithm is intended to help you, not hurt you.

Of the 47 million reviews on the site, we recommend around three-quarters of them, and more often than not, these reviews come from active members of the Yelp community.

In order to keep our content helpful and reliable, Yelp tries not to highlight reviews written by users they don't know much about, or reviews that may be biased because they were solicited from family, friends, or favored customers.

Yelp's recommendation software treats businesses who advertise on Yelp and non-advertisers exactly the same, as was recently confirmed by an HBS study.

Top Tips for Encouraging Customers to Write Reviews

Sure, you know having a presence on Yelp is important, but how can you encourage happy customers to write reviews?

Damien suggests these three tips:

  1. Promote your presence on Yelp, but don't directly ask for reviews. The former is a gentle reminder for established Yelpers to think of you when penning their next review, while the latter may cause a little strain on the biz/customer relationship. Heck, we've made a bunch of icons, buttons and the like for you to use.

  2. Flip the switch on a check-in offer! It's a free and easy way to give a little something to your existing customers, and it'll pop up on their homepage when they swing by

  3. Provide great customer service. Seem a little basic? Maybe, but a business is five times more likely to get a five-star over a one-star rating if the review mentions 'good customer service.' Yelpers are in and out of your place of business every single day, and the best way get them to write about you is to give them something to write about.

Get Yelping!

The conversation is happening out there, so it's time to get involved. Whether your customers are on Yelp, Amazon, Etsy, or another review site, get to know them, respond to their comments, and join in. Read between the lines so you can improve your business and satisfy your customers.

More About Damien Smith

Damien is the Marketing Director for Yelp Boston. He educates Yelp users and business owner communities, partners with events, speaks on panels, and throws parties, all with Yelp in the middle. He also curates the Weekly Yelp, a local guide covering places to go and things to do.