There’s no denying it, so I’ll say it without any hesitation: As of right now, Yelp is the most important website for restaurants and restaurant owners. It’s more important than Facebook, Google, and, chances are, more important than your own website.
Yelp generates more customer traffic for us at Zankou than any other source. No less than 70% to 80% of the leads to our restaurant website come from Yelp. Often users will find us on Yelp and not even bother to look for us anywhere else. Such is the importance of Yelp. It is a tremendously useful and reliable resource for consumers to look for, find, and become hardcore fans of their favorite types of restaurants.
A 2013 study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that of the 4,800 small businesses that had profiles on Yelp but did not advertise on the site still generated average revenues of $8,000 from Yelp every year—“a kind of passive halo effect,” in the words of the consultancy. What’s more, companies that actually advertised on Yelp experienced an average upsurge of more than $23,000.
However, just like every rose has its thorn, Yelp comes with a lot of problems and issues. It’s not very different from a beautiful girlfriend who you know will give you trouble later. That is precisely the relationship many restaurants, bars, and hotels have with Yelp. In fact, the entire service industry seems to be hanging on a thread—Yelp’s thread.
A 2011 study of 328 San Francisco restaurants by two University of California economists, Michael Anderson and Jeremy Magruder, found that just an extra half-star rating on Yelp can increase a restaurant’s chances of selling its dinner seats by 30-40%. The study also found that restaurants with an extra half star that had less than 500 consumer reviews on Yelp were likely to have 20-30% less reservation availability from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. than restaurants that had more than 500 reviews.
For all the positive effects of reviews, two issues continue to dog Yelp. The first is that restaurants have a built-in incentive to generate fake reviews, although Yelp has lately begun to use software that helps identify such reviews. The second issue revolves around the fact that advertisers on Yelp appear to have more favorable reviews than non-advertisers, which might suggest that either there’s some hidden payoff for advertisers or that some reviewers are being influenced not by the quality of food or service at restaurants—nor the décor or atmosphere—but by the advertising itself.
Zankou Chicken has been advertising with Yelp for years. Which is why what you’re about to read might come as a surprise: Advertising on Yelp makes little to no difference in your rating. At least that’s been our experience at Zankou. Thankfully, each of our restaurants has consistently achieved 4-5 stars. Some of our locations rate better than others, which may have more to do with consumer tastes, trends, and the level of service on a particular day for certain customers.
There are seven things you can do to increase your rating of Yelp—without advertising. Almost all of them are free or very cheap to implement. All’s that’s required is some time, good employee training, and some advertising money on posters and other promotional material.
Here are the seven tips—ranked from ethical to borderline unethical, although all are fully legal (because everyone’s budget and morality compass is different, only you can decide what and what not to pursue):
Tip #1: Train your employees well. The most ethical and obvious thing you can do to increase your Yelp rating has nothing to do with marketing but everything to do with service. Train your employees well, make sure the food is hot and fresh every time, and give them the tools to address customer grievances in your absence.
No matter how much you may want to be present at your restaurant, especially when things go wrong, the truth is nobody can be available all the time. And that’s all the more impossible if you happen to have more than one store. But that doesn’t mean an owner’s ethos cannot be ever-present. That doesn’t mean your employees can’t be trained to keep customers happy, as much as possible, every single time.
Think of all the things that can go wrong in our industry. A customer can be served food that is not as hot or fresh as he anticipated. The food can take much longer to prepare than a customer expects or is used to. Your employees may not be as nice or kind to a customer as they should be. That’s why it’s imperative that employees get a high level of professional training. Only then can they hope to handle consumer complaints.
Here’s what you should tell your cooks and cashiers to do: “As long as a customer’s problem is less than $20, fix it. Just keep customers happy. Give them what they want—the way they want it.”
You might think $20 is too high an amount. What if every customer asked for $20? The owner would go bankrupt in no time! But that’s almost impossible. As much as 95-98% of our customers at Zankou never request their money back—not even when they say they didn’t find the food satisfactory and wanted it replaced.
Always remember that as a restaurant owner you have go to do whatever it takes to bring customers back. Don’t do it to better your Yelp rating—do it for yourself. Do it for your business. Remember that if each customer visits you once a week and spends $15 (which they usually do), $15 x 4 weeks is $60 a month, which is $720 a year. So, is sacrificing one $20 family meal worth getting $720 extra all year from a given customer? You bet your left eyeball it is!
Think of the opportunity cost of not helping customers. Opportunity cost is the loss of potential monetary gain from other options when one alternative is chosen. When an entrepreneur misses the best alternative, he loses the value that would have come with it. More often than not, the best opportunity—or alternative—for any business is a customer who returns. And for that to happen, a customer must be happy. It’s good to remember that it costs nine times more to get a new customer than to keep an existing one.
Tip #2: Put a “Yelp us” poster on the wall of your restaurant. In addition, tell your cashiers to give customers a small gift if they can show you they gave your restaurant five stars. The gift could be a free drink or a free side order, neither of which costs much. This strategy is especially beneficial to a new restaurant or bar trying to make a name for itself in a tough neighborhood or hostile business environment. Imagine a bar that displays a sign that says, “Have a shot on us—just show us a 5 star review on Yelp!”
Tip #3: Put a link on your restaurant website that corresponds to your restaurant’s Yelp page. For example, on our web site, www.zankouchicken.com, which I developed over the course of two years, I put the Yelp location review page link directly on that location’s page on the website. This makes it more likely that our customers will review us, and sending them to Yelp will help increase our ranking. After all, more often than not, it’s your loyal customers who tend to visit your website, and they are the ones—your the hardcore fans—you would want to get Yelp reviews from.
Tip #4: Offer small giveaways in exchange for Yelp reviews. How about promotional T-shirts? You can also give away mugs, caps, shoes, ties, pens and key chains. People love these little things. You can have them placed right next to the cashier area, with a small sign that says the giveaway—or a small discount—can be had in return for a 5-star review on Yelp.
For example, let’s say you own a BBQ ribs restaurant—the kind of place that sells mechanical bulls people love to ride. Chances are you would also be selling some cool hats, T-shirts, and other such memorabilia. Why not give customers 10% off those purchases? All they would have to do is flash their iPhone and show the cashier a 5 star review that they posted.
Of course, all these tips represent something of an ethical gray area. Basically, you are giving customers a reward for giving you 5 stars on Yelp. It’s bribery, albeit legal. But who cares. If you and your restaurant are benefiting, by all means go for it.
Tip #5: Spend time on Yelp, and go fishing for all the 1 star, 2 star and 3 star reviews. These are the reviews that are messing up your score. Especially the one stars. Remember in school how that one stupid F ruined your entire GPA? The same mechanics apply here. Yelp features your average score—and the one star scores are similar to a zero score.
At Zankou, we respond to people not to increase our rating but because the rating is a sort of barometer of a business’s well being. Think of it like the low oil warning sign in your car: If your Yelp score is less than 3 stars, you are doing some very wrong things to your customers. You need to pull over, go and get an oil change—you need to change the attitude of your employees, make the food better, or just rethink your strategy and/or rules and guidelines entirely.
Try to contact everyone who gave you a one star. Go down the list and respond to all the 1-3 stars and the next day see what they said. Invite them back for a free meal, tell them you will give them a free meal and a free T-shirt. In fact, go ahead and tell them you will give them an entire family meal.
Yelp allows businesses to contact about five people per day from the owner account associated with your location. Contact one person at a time—and be patient. Then try to win these people over—and get them to give you 5 stars. Your score eventually will go up. The difficult part of this strategy is that it can take hours every day to follow up with people. Even when I did nothing more than copy and paste my responses to the 1 star reviewers, it always took me a long time.
Sadly, Yelp has no easy notification system, such as an email, which alerts you when people respond to your messages. You have to go back and individually check what happened to your response to their criticism. Did they respond to your response? Remember that no one is under any condition to even respond to you, so you have to be very nice.
Tip #6: Incorporate Yelp into all your social media and email advertising. From time to time, post links directly to your Yelp page on all your social media. This will route your best fans there, giving you a higher Yelp rating. Be sure to stamp the Yelp page of your business on all your email correspondence.
I will show you how to automatically timestamp your email so that people can click right through to both your web site and your Yelp page, the two most important marketing places of your business online. This always automatically promotes your Yelp page—and your business—every time you email somebody. It’s effortless, effective marketing that truly works.
One site you can do this for a small fee is WiseStamp. They are an awesome Firefox app that lets you timestamp all that cool info with amazing graphics.
Tip #7: Pay people for positive reviews. Obviously, this one is in the gray area. Yelp has automatic software that filters all positive reviews they believe are fake. I can teach you how to go around this.
There are three ways Yelp filters reviews. I know how they do this despite the fact that they never say how they do it. It’s their secret formula. And besides, of course they don’t want to tell people about it because then everyone would cheat and beat their system.
So here are three ways you can beat their system:
1. If you want to rate your own restaurant once, open a different account on Yelp with a different email and picture. Use a different computer than the one you used to register as owner (the Yelp computer robots memorize your IP and automatically would know it’s you, thereby blocking your review). If you use a different computer, different email, and different account, there is a good chance that your positive review will stick and stay on the site, never to be removed by their annoying robots.
And by they way, their robots are completely arbitrary. The process they use is not fair at all. It is not transparent and infuriates many business owners who see positive reviews, which also happen to be hundred percent legitimate, completely erased for no reason at all.
So I do not see this as cheating. I simply see it as a way for business owners to even the playing field, given the abysmal nature of Yelp’s customer service.
2. Ask friends and family to rate your establishment. Just make sure they do not all do it at the same time or even on the same day. Make it sound legitimate. Ask them to actually visit. It would serve you that they do try your food, or drinks or hotel and that their review actually helps people and isn’t just a B.S. paragraph they wrote for you. Those don’t help your business anyway. So just take the time to do this, do it the right way, and it will work. Give them a meal free if that’s what it takes. Just make it happen.
3. Pay people to rate your restaurant. Again, this is a gray area and is a violation of the YELP TOS. If you are caught doing this you can get in trouble with YELP so we can’t wholeheartedly RECOMMEND doing this we are only listing it as an option, albeit an ethically questionable option. Still, if for your business it can prove to be an equalizer if your competition is lambasting your site with fake negative reviews and YELP is not removing those, we can see where this my be a viable alternative to ignoring the site altogether, as many have accustomed themselves to doing. Fiverr (www.fiverr.com/) is a web site that specializes in people doing exactly these sorts of things for a small fee. Remember, there is no guarantee Yelp won’t erase their review. So you are taking a chance. But for $5 that chance might be worth taking.
Copyright 2014, Dikran Iskenderian. No version of this blog may be reproduced in any form without the author’s written consent. This blog represents the author’s views only and may not necessarily represent the views of Zankou Chicken, its board, its associates and employees, managers, or customers. Please do not reproduce without permission. Thank You.