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.