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The Yelp Review Filter – Where Did Your Positive Reviews Go?

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

We’re often asked, why does Yelp filter reviews?, or why are some of my Yelp reviews not showing? Understanding how the Yelp review filter works is the first step towards getting more reviews to stick.

First, let’s look at why this is so important.

Search results for your business often include your Yelp listing. Your Yelp rating — how many reviews you have, and your cumulative score — is also a factor in local SEO. So maintaining a favorable rating is important.

In order to combat spam and fake reviews, Yelp uses an algorithm to “recommend” certain reviews and hide others in the overall ranking.

While this eliminates many inaccurate reviews, some businesses have had their positive reviews hidden by the recommendation algorithm. A difference of one star rating can impact a business’ revenue from 5 to 9%. Making sure that any positive reviews are included in your shop’s recommended reviews is vital.

To see why Yelp filters reviews, we have to look at consumer behavior the way Yelp does. Namely, what behavior looks legitimate and what behavior looks suspicious.

Watch The Video of this Article

Why Does Yelp Filter Your Reviews?

Filtering User Signals

Yelp has stated on several occasions that their recommendation algorithm is their most valuable asset. While the exact calculations it makes are a mystery, certain patterns do emerge.

User Activity is a Big Factor

Ex-employees of Yelp have commented on Reddit before that user activity is the #1 factor in determining whether a user review is going to stick.

Reddit user ehenningl had this to say:

As a former employee of Yelp, I was very intrigued by this posting and read through the entire study and while there was some truth to the research they missed some major factors that go into the review filter. First off, Yelp’s review filter is smarter than they think, I don’t know how it exactly works, but it just fucking works. While working at Yelp, I was unable to write reviews for obvious conflict of interest reasons, but wrote many before and after my employment with them.

Most of my reviews would stick because my USER ACTIVITY was frequent on their site and consistently used the site and mobile app to find businesses. The research paper points out; “For example, longer reviews, or reviews by users with a larger review count are less likely to be filtered.” Which is partly correct, but from what I know (they never let us know much about the filter when I worked there) USER ACTIVITY is the #1 factor that goes into the review filter, not the frequency of reviews. Which makes perfect sense because someone who frequents the site would understand the value of the reviews.

The second flaw in their study is “A limitation of our work is that we cannot control for filtering biases in attributes that we do not observe, such as the IP address of a reviewer”, which is probably has the 2nd most weight in the review filter. IP address is everything, especially when you claim that most of these reviews are coming from overseas. For example Yelp knows where my user activity is coming from. If I were to write a review for a random business in Seattle, but I’ve never searched for a business while actually being in the state of Washington, it would most likely be filtered because there hasn’t been any USER ACTIVITY from an IP ADDRESS with in the Seattle area.

The third area that the research didn’t address is the relationship of the reviewer to the business owner. All of my reviews have stuck on Yelp, except one. The one I wrote for a family friends business that I frequent. So how the did Yelp know that I know them personally and filter the review, Facebook. Both my account and the business owners account were linked through Facebook, which we are friends on….boom…filtered.

Now I’m not claiming that 100% of reviews on Yelp are legitimate, but I’m sure as shit 20% are not fake. This study is flawed in so many ways because they didn’t have the proper data set to really understand what goes into the review filter which happens to be Yelp’s greatest proprietary asset.

What can we deduce from this?

If a customer signs up for Yelp strictly for the purpose of leaving you a review, chances are that review will be filtered out.

The Yelp algorithm looks at how much user activity a profile has. This means do they look up stuff on the app? Do they make recommendations or leave reviews often? Do they check in or take photos of businesses?

People who are already actively using Yelp are far more likely to have their reviews stick. Whenever possible, these are the people you should ask for a Yelp review.

The Yelp Elite

Yelp is most likely to trust reviews from their power users, known as the Yelp Elite. These users are very active on Yelp, have numerous friends on Yelp, and leave customer reviews on a regular basis.

The Yelp Elite are invited into the program on a year by year basis. Especially in the restaurant and hospitality sector, their reviews can have enormous sway over an establishment’s ratings.

Is this fair? Perhaps not, but these are the people that need to be on your radar.

Non-Active Profiles

Users with a blank profile are more likely to have their reviews hidden. If a customer hasn’t filled out their profile with a photo and additional details, the review algorithm sees that profile as less credible. Reviews from these users are more likely to be filtered out by Yelp. If a user only has one or two reviews, it is also more likely their reviews will be filtered.

The reason these profiles are less likely to have reviews that stick is their information isn’t easily verifiable.

Is the Yelp Account Connected to a Facebook Account?

Yelp looks to see if a user has a Facebook account connected to their Yelp account. Users with a wide variety of reviews, not just five stars and one star, seem to be natural looking. Users with an established history of activity also seem to be favored.

If a Yelp user has connected their Yelp profile to their Facebook profile, the chances that their reviews will be unfiltered increases dramatically. Yelp uses the information from Facebook to both confirm they are a real person, and to identify possible conflicts of interest.

Facebook has an overwhelming amount of data on it’s users, and can tell if you are connected to someone as a family member or employee. It is likely that Yelp uses this data to makes connections, and filter out conflict of interest reviews.

IP Tracking as a Yelp Filter Mechanism

Yelp uses IP address tracking along with geolocation to filter some reviews. If Yelp sees customers filling out reviews from your IP address, then they may think you are offering them an incentive for a good review. There are businesses that try to bend the rules to their advantage, so this is why you should avoid this practice.

A better idea is to send customers home with a flier on how to fill out a review on Yelp (and other sites, like Google+). If you have a way to collect email addresses from customers, you can send them a follow-up email asking for a review.

Can You Set Up an iPad in Your Customer Lobby for Collecting Yelp Reviews?

I understand why businesses would do this, but it’s a bad idea.

Yelp uses IP addresses and geolocation as part of their filtering algorithm. By setting up a computer to collect Yelp reviews in your customer lobby, you are setting yourself up for lots of filtered reviews.

The algorithm will see lots of reviews coming from your building, and is likely to filter most of them to the invisible bucket. Yelp does this because many business owners want to incentivize reviews, which is a big no-no for Yelp, Google, and most review platforms.

Don’t Incentivize Yelp Reviews

Giving customers a discount if they write a five-star review, or giving them any reward in return for a review is incentivizing a review.

Essentially, you are trying to buy a good review. That’s strictly against Yelp’s Terms of Service, so please don’t put offers like that on your website or anywhere else.

This is why you don’t want to set up a computer in your lobby for collecting Yelp reviews. Yelp figures that you are telling customers verbally that you will give them a discount for a good review. That’s the whole reason you want customers to leave a Yelp review offsite. Your lobby computer or their phones will show they are on your premises when they left a review.

Other Big No-Nos to Avoid with Yelp Reviews

Under no circumstances should you ever outright ask for a positive review or verbally prompt customers to review your business. Yelp frowns on this practice, and will penalize you if they find out.

Buying fake Yelp reviews will earn you a prominent warning label on your listing that you’ve been caught trying to cheat the system and your business is devoid of morals.

Other Odd Tendencies in the Yelp Algorithm

Many SEOs believe if a customer’s first review is negative, subsequent reviews they make are likely to stick. If a customer᾿s first review is five stars, that can trigger a flag in Yelp’s algorithm. Directly asking users to fill out a review on your business premises will not help you either, as we mentioned previously.

Oddly enough, if you get a positive review, the Yelp protocol dictates that you thank them via private message and not publicly. If you receive a negative review, then you are encouraged to leave a public reply and diffuse the situation. Whenever you get a scathing review, keep your professionalism about you and show that you are attentive to customer service. Thank the customer for their review and do your best to make things right with them. Other customers will see your efforts are sincere.

Controversy Over Advertising

While some business owners have alleged that Yelp salespeople have hinted that buying advertising will “unlock” positive reviews that have been hidden, Yelp employees have denied this numerous times, stating that no sales team member has the power to override the recommendation engine.

Getting More Positive Reviews

So how do you get more organic Yelp reviews? Use visual cues to remind customers to write a review. You can print out “Find Us On Yelp” graphics from Yelp’s Flickr page. You can also display print outs of previous Yelp reviews near the entrance or register. Yelpers that are already in the habit of writing reviews will be reminded to review your establishment as well.

You can also add coupons to your Yelp Business page that can be unlocked when customers review your business on the Yelp app.

Customer service seems to the biggest factor in getting positive reviews. Be courteous to customers both offline and online. Businesses that earn at least a 3.5 rating average receive window stickers that read “People Love Us On Yelp” once a year.

Escaping Review Purgatory

It is possible for positive reviews that are being filtered to eventually become recommended. It may take time for users to become more active and established on Yelp. If you only have reviews from people you are connected to on Facebook and other social networks, work on getting more reviews from total strangers. Running a successful small business is no easy feat. Improve your customer experience as much as possible, and good things will follow.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

2 comments on “The Yelp Review Filter – Where Did Your Positive Reviews Go?

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful posting.

    Content that you posted which is of keen interest:

    A better idea is to send customers home with a flier on how to fill out a review on Yelp (and other sites, like Google+). If you have a way to collect email addresses from customers, you can send them a follow-up email asking for a review.

    Key question – Yelp will “cookie” you computer when you visit yelp.com. Does the algorithm use the cookies to determine pre-existing relationship and if so, then you cannot email your customer asking for a review or it will get filtered. What are your thoughts on how Yelp uses the cookies?

    Allan

    1. Excellent questions, Allan. Yelp uses cookies to know if you’ve visited their website before. Cookies are a text file saved by your web browser, usually used for storing your password in the browser, etc.

      You could definitely email customers or give them a handout. There’s a reason you want to do it this way.

      Yelp uses IP tracking to see if the review was left in the customer lobby or on premises of a business. Many businesses I’ve talked to want to be proactive about getting Yelp reviews, by setting up an iPad in their lobby. However, Yelp filters most of these out. This is because many businesses will try to verbally offer a discount for a positive review. Basically, trying to buy a five-star review.

      Why does Yelp filter out personal relationships?

      This has more to do with Facebook connections than anything else. Part of Yelp’s filtering algorithm relies on whether the reviewer’s Facebook and Yelp accounts are connected. That tips the scales towards the review being recommended and visible. I think they do this in part, so they know it is a real person, and not merely a shell account.

      Yelp uses the data from Facebook in some way to look for authenticity signals (Is this a real person?) However, it can also access data on your relationships, so that may be why you see pre-existing relationships filtered out more frequently on Yelp. It determines that your three best friends or employees are leaving reviews, so those go to the invisible, not recommended pile.

      Cookies should be no problem. Facebook relationships might be the culprit if you are seeing some five-star reviews getting filtered out. Your overall star rating is strong, especially for the number of reviews you have, so keep up the good work.

      – John

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