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What Happens When You Charge People For Negative Yelp Reviews

    August 5, 2014
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Historic hotel Union Street Guest House learned a harsh lesson this week, which should serve as a cautionary tale to those worrying about their Yelp reviews a little too much. Reviews on Yelp and other sites are controversial for a variety of reasons, but businesses going to extreme lengths to keep negative reviews away are bound to only draw more of them.

How far would you go to maintain a positive Yelp presence? Let us know in the comments.

In case you missed it, the hotel in question had posted a policy on its website indicating that it would charge guests $500 for not only negative online reviews of its establishment, but for such reviews by other people. I’ll allow the text of said policy to explain:

Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our Inn, your friends and families may not. This is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer – therefore we expect you to explain that to them. USGH & Hudson are historic. The buildings here are old (but restored). Our bathrooms and kitchens are designed to look old in an artistic “vintage” way. Our furniture is mostly hip, period furniture that you would see in many design magazines. (although comfortable and functional – obviously all beds are brand new) If your guests are looking for a Marriott type hotel they may not like it here.

Therefore: If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500. fine for each negative review. (Please NOTE we will not charge this fee &/or will refund this fee once the review is taken down). Also, please note that we only request this of wedding parties and for the reasons explained above.

As you can imagine, once the media (including reddit) caught wind of this, all hell broke loose. The negative reviews came pouring in both from people claiming to have stayed at the hotel, and those admitting they hadn’t. There was a common theme: these people suck because they charge people fees for negative reviews – a worrisome business practice indeed.

Yelp agreed that the business practice was not a good one, but also said it wouldn’t allow reviews from people who hadn’t actually been to the hotel.

A spokesperson for the company told us, “For 10 years, Yelp has existed as a platform to alert consumers of bad business behavior such as this. Reviews that are found to be in violation of Yelp’s Terms of Service or Content Guidelines, including those that are not based on a first-hand experience, may be removed from the site.”

Another Yelp representative told us, “For ten years (this month), Yelp has provided a platform for people to exercise free speech and warn consumers about bad business behavior such as this. Yelp fights to protect free speech for consumers and against efforts to intimidate or stifle it. Trying to prevent your customers from talking about their experiences is bad policy and, in this case, likely unenforceable anyway.”

“We encourage people to share their first-hand experiences; reviews that are contributed as a result of media attention and do not reflect first-hand experiences run counter to Yelp’s Terms of Service and will be removed from the site,” they added.

A day later, it would appear that some of those reviews have been removed, and the hotel’s rating has gone up to one and a half stars (it was at one-star on Monday).

Still, the questionable reviews continue to roll in. The top one right now is five-stars, and comes from Hitler:

Union Street Guest House appears to have removed the practice from its policy – at least on the website. The part about charging people for negative reviews has disappeared. It’s unclear whether it’s still in the contract. The establishment has not been talking to the media.

The moral of the story is that no matter how much you may hate Yelp and online reviews in general, the last thing you should do is try to actually charge people who post negative ones. It will absolutely destroy your online reputation.

The flood of reviews may die down as the story fades from memory, and Union Street Guest House may be able to work its way up to a more positive Yelp presence, but getting rid of all the articles written about this incident may not be so easy – unless, of course, the “right to be forgotten” becomes a thing here in the U.S.

The hotel is lucky it hasn’t faced any apparent repercussions from Yelp, especially since Yelp is supposed to be alerting consumers about businesses who cheat on reviews. I don’t see a warning on Union Street Guest House’s page.

Do you think Yelp should have taken down reviews related to this? Should the hotel’s page have a consumer alert? Given the above Hitler example, is Yelp even effective at policing its policies? Let us know what you think in the comments.

  • JH

    I don’t care about Yelp . . . That is one of the worst business decisions I have heard of. If I was considering their services and read that I would tell them not interested and why. I would also share my experience with others.

  • Anon

    Many seem to agree that Yelp is basically being accused of extortion and blackmail every other day, so I find it impossible to be able to defend it in any way. However, whoever created that policy needs to sell up and get out of the hospitality business immediately.

    The policy might be gone, but it’s going to leave a lot of people wondering what other nasty little surprises might be in store for them if they book this venue or stay there. I mean, if they thought this policy was a good idea, what else are they capable of threatening?

    I don’t think we need to see a right to be forgotten law being introduced in the US, I can imagine all it’s going to take is a mob attack on a corporation with plenty of money and a point to make, and a lawsuit would probably end up forcing Yelp to allow businesses to be removed from their site.

    It’s only going to take a wealthy brand to want to make a statement, and all bets are off. I can foresee Yelp ending up in very hot water one day.

  • https://restore.solutions/ Numus Software

    We have never even looked at our Yelp reviews! We look after our customers as best we can.. Best advise i could give anybody… look after you business, care about your customers,.. all the review sites should then look after themselves.. unless they have been compromised..

  • gmlala

    The unfortunate thing about Yelp is that ANYONE can leave a bad review, even if they haven’t done business with the company. What the bogus bad reviewers don’t get is that the review affects everyone in the company and can actually make a lot of people lose their jobs because business plummets. So, the next time you have a bone to pick with a company, please try to resolve it directly instead of affecting a business just because you didn’t get your way.

    • Kathleen

      YES, deal with the company direct. Not through a site like Yelp.

  • ANom

    Guess this hotel has not heard of the saying “Can’t beat them, Join them”. Instead of charging guests $500 for bad reviews, they should have paid their staff to post reviews. Dishonest! Yes. But try writing an honest review as a minority. Unless you are Hitler, it will fail.

    But since this is a historic hotel and back then, there was no internet access and online reviews, maybe they were acting according to how our forefathers would have acted; fining people for spreading tales.

  • gotmick

    These people shouldn’t even be in the hospitality business. An “F” rating at bbb.org as well! Seriously?

    http://www.bbb.org/upstate-new-york/Business-Reviews/motels/union-street-guest-house-in-hudson-ny-235967647#reasonrating

  • Ray Baldwin

    I deal with Yelp reviews at least once a month as part of my job. I honestly believe that Yelp does make a concerted effort to avoid or prevent fake reviews both good and bad-I’ve seen bad reviews removed from customers who proved to use Yelp as nothing but a complaint board and good reviews removed by cheerleaders and one-timers. The worst thing you can do is try to stack the deck in your favor-once you get caught be prepared to see every good review ever written fall under suspicion. The best practice you can have is to investigate and respond to bad reviews and make an effort to satisfy the individuals who may have had reason for leaving a negative, thank those who leave good ones and make sure your policies give people a genuine reason to like you.

  • Mark Paterson

    Not a lot

  • Mark Paterson

    Yelp has a rather high opinion of itself

  • http://stopthecap.com Phillip Dampier

    Yelp is nearly as bad as this hotel. Write an honest bad review and watch it get thrown in questionable status (suspected fraudulent review) once the business pays for Yelp’s services. If they refuse to pay, those “cheerleading” reviews get marked suspect. It is a racket and I’ve seen my own reviews change status once money changes hands. I wouldn’t trust Yelp to guide me to a light switch.

    Considering Hitler’s five star review is there but the one star reviews are gone, I’ll bet a swastika the hotel is paying for Yelp’s services.

  • LisaK

    The hacking on Yelp isn’t fair. Their policy is they allow reviews from actual customers. Not heresy, gossip, and public ranting. And “Freedom of Speech”? It’s their venue, freedom of speech does NOT extend into private locales. If they want to edit which reviews show and which don’t… well tough sh#&. Their ball, their bat, their park. Don’t like it, don’t visit, and certainly don’t post bogus reviews.

  • Jo from EU

    My dad always said,.. never do anything for money only.

    Do what you do because you like doing it. If you like what you do

    you will be good at it and try to get even better. Because you like it.

    If you have your heart in it people will feel this and all who like what you

    offer will come back and tell others .

    Not every one being the same and looking for the same , one will cannot reach

    every person. Thats the law of nature.

    If I offer you a gold ring and you do not like gold butt silver , this will not make

    silver any better as gold.

    If there is space for ranking pages in the above ? well then it my be that way.

    But looking at the possibility in the WWW when constructing one’s own web site

    Live Web-Cam, Guest book etc. is one way but the most impotent thing is

    to look after the guest.

    I a guest need to wright a negative comment any where then something went

    wrong a long way back.

    I would look at the possibility to charge all ranking pages if the use myLOGO ,

    myCopyright, if they cannot guaranty a clean and well managed platform.

    I did not ask them to mention my house , possible I do not want them even

    know I exist? Possible I wish to be an insider tipp?

    Endless possibilities.

    At the end , ranking pages, what was a good idea at the beginning is a plain money making

    uncontrollable area.

  • Kathleen

    I don’t believe anything I read on Yelp. They have no way of knowing who is making the comments about about a business. It could be a competitor and even a previous employee. So I don’t beleive to what people write, I also don’t post comments in yelp. If I have a problem I go to the business “direct”, not through social media.

  • gmlala

    One of our Customers actually created our Yelp account and left a bad review because he didn’t want to pay his bill. Is that fair?

  • Hotel Buyer

    I would surmise that the initial policy wasn’t written in the manner in which it has understandably perceived. They state the hotel is old/historic – this is a common problem/issue with individuals booking a hotel whereby they presume certain amenities; room size; services etc will be in place. In other words the expectation will never be met simply due to the fact older/historic hotels room sizes are built for the market at that time (1920’s 30’s 40’s etc). The hotel was only attempting to convey this – and simply went about it incorrectly.

  • http://www.optimized-results.com Ian Blei

    although I’ve never received less than a 5-star review, and can’t imagine getting a bad one (unless a competitor or someone personally wanted to attack me,) the day I stopped paying them $300 a month, half of my reviews got “filtered out by the algorithm.” makes you say, “hmmmm….”

  • Raul Gomez

    I believe that Yelp is mostly useless and two many kooks with to much time on their hands distort it’s usefulness. I quit using it a couple of years ago.

  • thebare

    Businesses should have the same opportunity as consumers. Consumers should be reviewed by businesses. There should be a Better Consumer Bureau.

  • Paul

    I have heard both glowing recommendations AND horror stories about the topic of employing Yelp as a tool for boosting advertising on-line presence of a business…

    Because of hearing the specific negative aspects of Yelp-based advertising, I had shied away from doing business with them…….and after a personal encounter with Yelp from the “flip-side” of the coin (as a reviewing consumer), I will DEFINITELY not ever do business with them…

    I recently provided lockout service for a customer (yes, I’m a self-employed locksmith!), who told me while chatting (after I got him back into his bedroom) that he was studying to be a barber. I remarked that I have been searching for years to find a barber who could cut my hair right (when returning home after a haircut, I would always have to re-trim my sideburns [invariably, they would be cut at different angles & heights] and take a rinse-off shower to get rid of the cut hairs on my face/neck/shoulders…). He said that I should stop by the shop he was training in, to let him practice on me–“no prob–if you mess it up, it always grows back!”, I told him…

    About 6 weeks later, my hair was sufficiently long enough for him to practice on, and I stopped by his shop. It was a GREAT experience…the shop was decked out with L.A. Laker memorabilia–even the hardwood floor had the logo shellacked (sp?) on it! The barber/former customer did a marvelous job; he was meticulously careful to not cut or nick my acne-scarred neck (it happens a LOT!), I had no “after-haircut-itchiness” (virtually NO hair residue remained), AND, my sideburns were trimmed perfectly!

    After paying him (generously!), he asked that I post a Yelp review to help him out, to which I agreed–I did it within 24-48 hours of the haircut. A day or two after that, he called to ask if I did a review, because it wasn’t posted to the shop’s Yelp page…I had given him a 5-star review & posted pictures of the experience. When I searched for it on the shop’s web page, I discovered that Yelp had relegated my review to their “not recommended reviews” sub-page.

    My barber suggested that I “tone it down”, and re-post the review, which I did (I kept the 5-stars/re-worded the text portion of it, and the pic’s were already posted and I couldn’t remove them)…….Yelp STILL rejected my review.

    In reading the shop’s other posted reviews, I saw a 1-star review from a lady who actually said “the worst place I’ve ever taken my son to get a haircut; ‘_______’ (barber’s name) is a thug in a barber outfit”, which is clearly a violation of Yelp’s policies regarding insults toward individuals, instead of objectively evaluating the service provided. When I checked the woman’s other 11 posted reviews, they were ALL 1 or 2-star reviews, with negative comments & insults toward the businesses in question…

    SO, in conclusion, is it any wonder WHY, as a business owner, I wouldn’t touch Yelp with a million-mile pole?? Their policies are SO skewed & unenforced, that it is comparable to “financial suicide” to employ Yelp as an advertising/marketing tool. Yelp CAN cause irreversible damage to a business reputation…….in my humble opinion…