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Understanding Review Filters

In theory, and often in practice, online review sites are awesome. They provide information from a variety of customers just like you, letting you consider the pros and cons they list from their experience with a business.

If you own a business — and you do, because that’s why you’re reading this — they provide a great way to advertise your excellent reputation, your great customer service, your very satisfying product.

Of course, real life doesn’t always work out so neatly. As we’ve talked about in previous newsletters, review sites can be gamed. Business owners can try to produce reviews of their own businesses, turning what’s supposed to be an objective critique into pure advertising. They can hire outside firms or individuals to post wildly enthusiastic reviews, even if the actual customer experience doesn’t live up to the raves. They can try to undermine competitors with unfairly negative reviews posted by themselves or others.

At other times, the problem has nothing to do with business owners themselves. Sometimes people just like to be trolls, so they rip apart a business in a review because of a personal beef, or just for kicks.

This is why review filtering exists. (We’ll focus on the Yelp review filter here, because Yelp remains the big dog in online reviews, though it’s only one of several sites — Google+ reviews are especially critical as well — that allow users to review businesses.)

As Yelp explains it, the three main priorities for its filtering service are to ensure that reviews are left by actual people (not bots); reviews are left by customers, not hired third parties; and businesses don’t review themselves.

Of course, the vast majority of this is handled by an algorithm, not by a human being, so there are ways to game the system. The algorithm also takes other aspects into consideration, with the biggest one being the reputation of the reviewer. If someone is a regular, active reviewer with a variety of reviews of different businesses, that user’s review has a much better chance of appearing on the site that a review from a first-time or infrequent reviewer.

When the filters work well, reviews from people who honestly and properly reviewed your business appear on the site and help guide visitors. When they don’t, legitimate reviews can get caught in the filter, and unfair or intentionally deceptive reviews can be posted.

Additionally, if Yelp gets the impression your business has gone too far in trying to actively solicit online reviews — as in paying for raves — it can drop a hammer on your head. Last year, it posted brutally worded “consumer alerts” on the pages of seven businesses it said were actively paying for positive reviews.

In its guidelines, Yelp discourages businesses from asking customers to write reviews at all. It notes this in a FAQ with the question “Should I ask customers to write reviews for my business?”:

Probably not. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount. And let’s be candid: most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers can smell from a mile away. Don’t be surprised, then, if your solicited reviews get filtered by Yelp’s automated review filter.

That’s pretty harsh, but that’s Yelp’s prerogative as the top review site, and it’s one of many reasons the site is facing withering criticism from business owners nationwide.

From our perspective, it’s fine to encourage a clearly satisfied customer to leave a positive review, but it’s best to take a soft approach. Don’t tie a discount or promotion to a positive review, and never — ever — outright offer to pay someone for a positive review.

A review has the best chance of being published (and just as important, staying published) if it appears to be the product of a customer acting on his or her own to share a great experience with others. Because the reviews that “stick” also tend to come from people who actively review lots of business, the best review also comes from someone inclined to review in the first place.

Understanding the best way to cultivate reviews that are positive and “sticky” — without engaging in any risky behavior — can be a tricky process. At Ring Ring Marketing, we’re always happy to answer any questions you have about the best practices in maintaining your online reputation.

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