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Is Yelp's Review Filter Hiding Your Positive Reviews?

Are you like the countless other small business owners who have been feeling frustrated—to say the least—with Yelp’s review filter? It’s okay if you are. Prospect Genius certainly is, too. Half of the frustration comes from how much Yelp’s review filter obviously favors paid advertisers. The other half comes from how skillfully Yelp seems to be covering it up. Yelp Logo Have any of these happened to your business?

  • Some of your customers have left you positive reviews, but they’ve been filtered out and hidden from your page.
  • You don’t have many negative reviews, but for some strange reason, these are the reviews that don’t get filtered out.
  • Yelp has called and offered to “help” with those hidden reviews if you just sign up for their advertising services.

We don’t know about you, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Of course, Yelp refutes any favoritism towards businesses that pay for advertising versus those that don’t. In fact, Yelp has dedicated an entire “Advertiser FAQ” page to doing just that. But are Yelp’s claims what they seem? Yelp certainly chooses its words carefully. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these claims and find out.

1. Yelp Doesn’t “Remove” Reviews…

…But it does filter them out. And filtering is as good as removing them, because filtered reviews are completely hidden from your page. We have heard from other small businesses that Yelp’s review filter has a tendency to hide negative reviews for paying advertisers and to hide positive reviews for those who aren’t paying. Obviously, this isn’t an exact rule for popular businesses (like trendy restaurants) that have hundreds and hundreds of reviews. In those cases, the sheer volume of positive reviews wins out. But when a business has a smaller following and isn’t a brick-and-mortar establishment that attracts a lot of in-person visitors, the number of reviews is much smaller—which makes the review filter all the more potent. For example, Prospect Genius used to have a Yelp page (which has since been deleted), and we ran into this exact problem. We had several five-star reviews, all of which were buried by the filter. Meanwhile, the one and only negative review was left front and center on our page, causing us to have a one-star rating. To make matters worse, the negative review was written by an individual who had also used his own name to write positive reviews for his own business. Isn’t Yelp’s review filter supposed to be cutting down on this kind of shady behavior? And it’s not just us. We’ve spoken to numerous clients and other small business owners who have had strikingly similar experiences. We’ve even been told by multiple clients of ours that Yelp called them and offered to “help” with negative reviews if they would sign up for advertising services. FYI: You can read any business’s filtered reviews by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the displayed reviews and clicking on the tiny, grey link that says something like, “23 other reviews that are not currently recommended.”

2. You Don’t Automatically Get “Five Stars” for Paying…

…But you probably won’t get fewer than three. On its “Advertiser FAQ” page, Yelp says,

“If advertisers could control their reviews, then you’d expect them all to have perfect 5-star ratings on Yelp. Spoiler alert: They don’t.”

This is true. They don’t all have perfect, five-star ratings. But how often do you see a Yelp ad for a business with fewer than three stars? Our theory is, when a business becomes a paying advertiser, Yelp filters out just enough of their negative reviews to give them a sufficiently favorable rating. Since filtered reviews don’t impact a business’s star rating, this would do the trick. We tested our hunch by searching Google for Yelp advertiser listings. (You can try it yourself by using this search term: site:yelp.com/biz “yelp advertiser”.) We pored over 21 pages of results and counted how many Yelp advertisers had each star rating (1 through 5). To keep our data consistent with Yelp’s, we rounded up half-star ratings to the next whole star. So 3.5 stars became 4, 4.5 stars became 5, and so on. The results may shock you, but they shouldn’t. Out of a total 210 Yelp advertisers, 202 of them had ratings of 3 or more stars. That’s 96%. Here’s a breakdown of our findings:

yelp advertisers and ratings 3

Our data shows Yelp advertisers overwhelmingly receive high ratings:

  • 5 stars: 79%
  • 4 stars: 16%
  • 3 stars: 1%
  • 2 stars: 0%
  • 1 star: 1%
  • Hidden: 2%

Now compare this with data from Yelp’s fact sheet, which accounts for all businesses, not just advertisers:

  • 5 stars: 44%
  • 4 stars: 23%
  • 3 stars: 11%
  • 2 stars: 7%
  • 1 star: 15%

When you take a look at all businesses, the distribution of star ratings seems a bit more even. What does that tell you?

Conclusion: It Pays to Pay

We obviously aren’t privy to the algorithm of Yelp’s review filter or what its sales team’s strategy looks like, but we do know that Yelp’s paid advertisers appear to have unlocked the secret to success. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get a good rating on Yelp if you become an advertiser.