Yelp’s Deal With Yahoo Has Small Businesses Crying Foul

Check out this Wall Street Journal article on problems caused by the recent deal between Yelp and Yahoo:

A recent deal by Yelp Inc. to provide business listings for Internet searches on Yahoo Inc. is getting bad reviews from some small-business owners, who say years of positive feedback from customers have vanished from Yahoo.

Colonial Hardwood Flooring of Lexington, Mass., amassed six years of mostly positive feedback on its Yahoo Local listing, says owner Dan Tringale. But several weeks ago, after Yahoo began posting reviews from Yelp, nearly 50 Yahoo reviews disappeared, he says.

Potential customers searching Yahoo won’t see a 2012 recommendation that Carla Fortmann confirms she and her husband wrote: “This floor is beautiful and it was very carefully done.” Nor will Yahoo searchers find a June 2012 review from Regina Sasso, of Wilmington, Mass., who says Colonial “provided a competitive quote and delivered meticulous service and work.”

Such praise has been replaced by a single, punctuation-challenged Yelp review, from the “Paul M” screen name, “Respected budget got difficult stain taken care of very attentive and house got an offer opening weekend.”

“It’s a slap in the face that they took all those reviews down overnight,” says Mr. Tringale, who refinishes floors in residential and commercial buildings. The 54-year-old, who works alone on two or three jobs a week, says about 30% of his business comes from online searches.

Potential customers, he frets, might begin to turn to competitors with more robust listings. “It’s not easy to get 50 great reviews,” he says. In terms of his online reputation, it’s as if Yahoo “just took away six or seven years of hard work.”

Aside from the Fortmanns’ and Ms. Sassos’ postings, past Yahoo reviews that business owners cite for this article couldn’t be verified independently.

Yahoo declined to comment on specific businesses. “We partnered with Yelp, one of the most trusted, relevant sources of consumer business reviews, to provide a richer search experience for Yahoo users,” says a spokeswoman for the Sunnyvale, Calif., company. “That’s why when Yelp’s reviews are available for U.S. businesses, they will replace Yahoo Local reviews.”

San Francisco dog trainer Beverly Ulbrich says the Yahoo Local profile for her business, Pooch Coach, had roughly 20 positive reviews but now generates an error message. “That’s the link I used to send people to check out my business,” says Ms. Ulbrich, who gets up to five customers a week.

A Yahoo search for her business now displays a link to 22 “recommended” reviews on Yelp, giving Pooch Coach an average rating of 21/2 stars. “You just feel helpless,” she says.

Roughly 95% of consumers say they use the Internet to find local businesses, and 85% say they read online reviews, according to a study last year by search-engine-optimization consultant BrightLocal. Yahoo accounted for 10.3% of all online searches in February, behind Google Inc., with 67.5%, and Microsoft Corp.’s Bing, with 18.4%, according to Internet-research firm comScore Inc.

In a deal announced in February by Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, Yelp’s business listings, including consumer reviews and photos, are displayed whenever users search Yahoo for local services, from restaurants and stores to beauty salons and chiropractors.

Since mid-March, new reviews about a business posted on Yelp replace reviews that had been posted on Yahoo Local, the Web portal’s own consumer-review tool. Until a new Yelp review is posted, the Yahoo reviews remain. The listing changes apply for desktop, smartphone and tablet users, as well as for search results on Yahoo Maps.

Yelp says it attracts 120 million visitors a month with more than 50 million customer-generated reviews. The San Francisco company’s deal with Yahoo will make it “even easier to find and connect with great local businesses,” Mike Ghaffary, Yelp’s vice president of business and corporate development, says in a statement on Yelp’s website.

Having multiple reviews is crucial for businesses, because it provides consumers with diverse, trustworthy opinions, says Bala Iyer, who teaches Internet business strategy at Babson College, in Massachusetts.

Businesses “live or die by their online reputation,” he says. When there is just a single, five-star review, he says, consumers tend to be suspicious that a business owner might have fabricated the post, called AstroTurfing in the trade.

Apart from losing old Yahoo reviews, some business owners say they are worried about the number of anonymous reviews posted on Yelp, a practice that some people believe can lead to fraud. Yelp and Yahoo both require users to create profiles, with verified email addresses, before submitting reviews, though the reviews can be posted under screen names.

Yelp says most of its reviewers use their real names and that it has systems to protect the site from fake reviews. The site’s software suppresses about 25% of submitted reviews and only reviews that are cleared by the software filter will appear in Yahoo search, Yelp says.

For many small-business owners, Yelp is nearly impossible to avoid. Two years ago, Yelp agreed to provide business listings and reviews within Apple Inc.’s Maps application. Yelp has provided listings and reviews for Bing since 2010. And Yelp reviews typically display high in Google searches, often above a company’s own website.

“I tell business owners to always copy your reviews, even a screenshot, because you never know what’s going to happen to them,” says Adryenn Ashley, who runs a six-year-old Yelp-protest site. She says that in the past several days she has heard dozens of complaints about disappearing Yahoo reviews.

Mr. Tringale, the floor refinisher, says he is glad he copied positive Yahoo reviews over the years so that he could display them on his website.

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