In my last two columns, I talked about the growing trend of consumers rating financial advisors. I also discussed how to get started on Yelp, the largest consumer-review site available. In this column, I’d like to discuss the possibility that engaging with Yelp might become stressful — and may even damage your reputation, if you let it. So what’s the problem? Actually, experts say there are three:

  • Yelp’s screening algorithm, which filters out fake or inappropriate reviews
  • Their advertising sales practices, which some claim amount to extortion
  • A Yelp culture that appears to encourage nasty consumer behavior

Let’s discuss each in turn, so you’ll be prepared if and when you get active on Yelp.

The filter: Yelp’s system for protecting businesses against fake or poor quality reviews is generally necessary, experts say. The problem? It can filter out reviews from legitimate users. Consequently, it’s not unusual for an advisor to build up a few dozen four- and five-star reviews only to see them be demoted to the “filtered” section over time. What gives?

Apparently, Yelp’s system screens out those users who:

  • are new to Yelp (with only a few reviews to their credit).
  • haven’t fleshed out their profiles (lacking a photo, personal data, or social media links).
  • are overly slanted toward the positive or negative.
  • write reviews lacking details.
  • are likely to be unreliable (i.e., friends, employees, family of the business owner).
  • have never visited or retained the business.

Knowing this will help you limit your review requests to consumers who are least likely to get screened out. Plus, you’ll be less likely to get upset if and when this happens to you.

sAdvertising sales: Many businesses allege that once they generate a reasonable number of positive reviews, they start getting calls and emails from Yelp ad sales reps. The pitch: Invest $400 to $1,000 a month for a year and receive the ability to promote their business on their page, to move a favorite review “above the fold,” and other benefits. If they refuse, businesses claim, Yelp filters out their positive reviews, creating a falsely negative impression for prospects. But once they buy ads, their positive reviews magically reappear. Also, if they refuse, ads from competing firms appear on their page — and disappear once they begin advertising. Takeaway? Always do your homework before advertising on Yelp. And if you believe you’ve been extorted, simply walk away. One other thing: If you are a licensed investment advisor, beware of advertising on Yelp, because this will give you control over your reviews’ placement, something the SEC’s new guidance frowns upon. This could subject you to the SEC’s so-called testimonial rule.

Unhinged reviewers: To prepare yourself, consider how you will handle negative commenters. For example, commit to engaging professionally with them, evaluating where they’re coming from and fixing problems, if possible. But also challenge inaccurate comments or malicious attacks when necessary. Above all, don’t descend to a reviewer’s level and never threaten to sue a negative reviewer for defamation. Attacking the attacker is rarely a suitable strategy. The National Ethics Association’s bottom line advice on Yelp (and similar sites)?

  1. Check them out, but do it with your eyes wide open and with the goal of always safeguarding your reputation.
  2. Educate yourself about how they filter reviews and be judicious about whom you ask for reviews.
  3. Don’t tolerate coercive advertising sales practices from Yelp or any other firm.
  4. Deal professionally with all negative reviewers, and remember, there are more important things in life than fretting about Yelp.