How to Beat the Yelp Algorithm

Yelp Can Hurt Your Business

Having a good Yelp rating is an absolute must for every business. Over 80% of consumers check a company’s Yelp review before buying. It doesn’t matter if you are a dentist or a roof repair company if your Yelp score is below 4 stars, you are in deep trouble. A Harvard University study showed that a business can expect up to a 9% decrease in business by dropping a single star rating on Yelp.

The Algorithm

From a businesses standpoint, the main issue with Yelp is their algorithm. They do not count all reviews. In fact, over 20% of all reviews on Yelp end up in their filter and are not counted towards the company’s official Yelp score. This is problematic, as Yelp’s algorithm is anything close to fair.  On average, it is  15% more likely that a positive review will be filtered. Add to that, the algorithm is unduly influenced by financial concerns of Yelp and marketing companies.  Yelp isn’t fair, and you shouldn’t expect it to be.

Mandatory Inclusion

Many companies don’t see the value in being included in Yelp’s listings, especially if they are not a restaurant. With good SEO, a company’s website can dominate the search engine and offer an alternative to the omnipresent Yelp page. However, there is no way to opt out of Yelp, unless you go out of business.

So, just mark your business as out of business and Yelp will remove you from the listings. Many companies have tried to go this route. It’s less damaging to your reputation to have your Yelp page de-indexed than a poor Yelp review. This was a tactic that used to be an effective way to bow out of the Yelp race.  However,  Yelp has gotten wise to this exit strategy and prevent companies from claiming their companies have gone out of business. Whether you want to or not, you are stuck in Yelp’s database.

Stifling  Innovation

As a business, you will always have to keep in mind how your actions will affect your Yelp rating.  Many companies rely on early-adopters and adventurous consumers to drive their businesses. That type of consumer isn’t interested in writing Yelp reviews.  On average, Yelp reviewers are more cautious and risk-averse than that population at large. That means many companies –especially restaurants– have to cater to the middle rather than the adventure seekers. The cost to innovation and pushing limits has never been higher, as pushing limits will always offend someone.  And that someone will likely go on Yelp to complain. That means offering merely acceptable food and services will get you a higher Yelp rating than offering something truly innovative or original.

Increasing Costs to Consumers

Most restaurants and many other businesses now add a 2-3% line item on their budgets to cover “comped” meals and services.  This line item goes to pay for free meals and services for Elite Yelpers so they will write positive reviews. It also goes towards bribing reviewers who have written a negative on Yelp. Companies have no choice but to pass those extra costs to their customers.

Are you a fan of Yelp? Enough to pay a Yelp tax every time you go out to eat?

The B2B Exemption

All businesses end up on Yelp. But not all are indexed.  There is one category of business that Yelp doesn’t negatively effect: and that is a company that offers Business-to-Business services. If your company does not deal directly with consumers, you can get Yelp to “no-index” all references to your company.  A direct link to your company will still exist, but it will not show up on any search on Yelp or any major search engine.


The Three Yelps

Yelp will talk endlessly about their algorithm and how it works.

We use automated software developed by our engineers to recommend reviews from the Yelp community. The software looks at dozens of different signals, including various measures of quality, reliability, and activity on Yelp. Most of all, however, it’s looking for people who are intrinsically motivated to share the wide range of rich and detailed experiences they have every day with local businesses.

What they won’t tell you is that three of the major “Signals” they use to correlate to the company’s financial relationship with Yelp. Don’t ever forget that Yelp is no charity. It’s a publicly-traded company that earns revenue mostly from small businesses.

New Businesses

Yelp’s algorithm functions in a neutral fashion for new companies. Yelp considers a company to be new if it has less than 10 reviews and hasn’t been contacted by a Yelp salesperson. Most positive Yelp reviews will remain out of the filter and any obviously false negative reviews will be put into the filter.

Antagonistic Businesses

Be careful when the Yelp sales team starts calling. If you decline to advertise your company will be pulled out of the “New Business” category.  This is a very dangerous place to be. The balance will be turned towards negative reviews rather than positive. You’ll notice that obviously fake negative reviews will remain out of the filter. At the same time, new positive reviews will be less likely to be accepted. The change is subtle and may not be noticed for months or years. Over time, this negative balance will harm your Yelp rating, no matter how good a company you run.

To stay out of this category,  you will need to remain in the “New Business” category as long as you can. There is only one sure-fire way to accomplish this: never refuse to advertise. Just tell the nice salesperson you are financially strapped, but to call back in six months: you’d absolutely love to advertise once you have the financing together.  This tactic can keep up this tactic for years without negative impact.

Yelp Advertisers

After a few years in business, or if you have over 30 reviews, you will need to start advertising on Yelp. There are several ways to do this and several distinct benefits for doing so.  There are two ways to advertise on Yelp. The first is to accept a package from one of Yelp’s salespeople. This is what most businesses opt for, but it may not be the best way to game the Yelp algorithm.

We recommend opting for self-service options that cost less and will give you the very same Yelp rating benefits. Make sure to claim your business, then you will be able to manually opt for “Business Page Upgrades” There are many options to choose from. They must include at least the following:

  1. Pay per click (at least $5/day)
  2. Enhanced Profile Upgrade (around $3/day)

This is the least expensive way to ensure you get the advertiser rating bump.  Within a month of becoming an advertiser, you will find that nearly all negative reviews –especially from new or questionable accounts– will end up in the filter. Positive reviews, including new and incomplete accounts, will remain out of the filter. Your Yelp score can jump by a half point in just a few months.

Keep in mind that Yelp’s algorithm treats new and already published reviews very differently. Advertising won’t bury old negative reviews and it won’t bring positive reviews from the filter. This tactic only works on reviews submitted after you started advertising.


Removing a review from Yelp

Yelp does allow for reviews to be removed. You can “Flag” the review for several reasons, and a Yelp arbitrator will review your request. It’s suggested to think about this as a lawyer and have plenty of facts and documents to back up your claim: most claims are rejected out of hand, and you are only permitted to flag a review once.

As is typical with Yelp, it’s easier to get positive reviews removed than negative ones. One of the innovative techniques we undertake here at YelPhilly is to exploit this loophole in Yelp’s algorithm. Instead of trying to have negative reviews removed, we actively have positive reviews removed from your competitors’ pages.

Non-First Party Reviews

Yelp may remove if the review can be shown to be written by someone who’s never been a customer. If they start a review by saying “My mother went to this spa and she had a terrible time.” Then you can very likely have it removed.

Explicit or Offensive Reviews

Any review that may be racist or sexist can be removed. This is a moving target, as many things are now considered offensive that was not several years ago. Using terms like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo in your flag will give added weight to your arguments.

Reviews Containing Personal Details

Personal information of employees is not permitted on Yelp. This does not apply to managers or owners, however.

Wrong Company Reviewed

On occasion, it can be argued that a Yelp critic was at a different venue with a similar name. For some reason, this is especially effective for removing positive reviews from a competitor’s page.

Written By an Employee

Yelp hates when positive reviews are posted by employees, friends, or associates of the business owner.  If you can draw a connection between a reviewer and anyone employed at the company, there is a good chance that review will be taken down.

Voting on Reviews

One of the most effective ways to keep your good reviews out of the filter is to vote for them via your own Yelp account. It’s even more effective when you can get a team of yelpers to do this, as well. The reverse is true, too: you can ensure your competitors’ negative reviews stay out of the filter by voting for every one of their negative reviews. Keep in mind that liking is public, so don’t use your real first name, if possible.


Elite Yelpers

Most yelpers write one or two reviews a year, and they to skew towards grumpy middle-aged people. However, Elite Yelpers are a class on their own. They write 40+ reviews a year and their average age is currently in the late twenties. Even then, they have to be accepted into the program on a yearly basis. They are a highly active and incentivized group of people. And they write a lot of well-thought-through and positive reviews.

  1. Reviews from Elite Yelpers are never filtered
  2. A positive review from an Elite Yelper will skew the algorithm in your favor for years.

Elite Yelpers are offered free events multiple times a year, these Elite Yelp Events are underwritten by a local restaurant or venue. The expectation is that most invitees write positive reviews of the event.  Yelpers are prohibited from writing a review about the business directly, just the event itself. Building a database of Elite Yelpers friendly to your business has some long-lasting benefits, as you can invite them back to your establishment in the future.

Courting Elite Yelper is something local PR firms do. When restaurants hire PR firms, there is an expectation that the restaurant will garner dozens of five-star reviews. In Philly, every PR firm has a cadre of Elite Yelpers, who will eat at a client’s restaurant for free. In return, they all write glowing reviews of the establishment. If they don’t write the review, they will out of the PR firm’s good graces, and no more free meals at expensive restaurants.

Yelp Reviews

Buying VS Bribing

While it may seem that you can buy a Yelp review directly from a PR firm, it’s very expensive.  There are many firms that offer to sell your Yelp reviews. There are even more pages that warn you against buying Yelp reviews. For buying reviews, we’ve had good luck with this company. On average. about 50% of their reviews stay out of the filter, 80% if your company is also advertising on Yelp. That said, it’s almost always more effective to offer bribes to real customers. While it’s against Yelp’s terms to offer incentives, does it really matter? This is a company that forces you to be a part of its business. They can’t expect you to play by their rules when they force you to play ball with them.

Creating Fake Yelp Reviews

Creating fake Yelp reviews on your own is possible, but it does require specialized knowledge.

  1. Local IP Addresses for Posting Reviews. It’s best to have one per fake reviewer.
  2. VPN software
  3. Fake Facebook Accounts. They should look active and have “real” friends. Make sure none of their friends are associated with the reviewed company or each other.
  4. Once you have all three of these, you can create fake Yelp accounts. Make sure to obfuscate your location (VPN), browser, and type of computer.  Yelp is very good at detecting fake accounts.
  5. Write at least 10 reviews of other companies before writing a review of your own company.
  6. Spread out your reviews over months. Don’t write more than one review a week.

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