Editor's note: Google isn't the only way for your business to be discovered online. This is the fifth and final piece in our series looking at alternate sources for search.
For business owners, there's a lot to love -- and possibly a lot to hate -- about user review site Yelp. Racking up droves of positive reviews can attract more customers, but some business owners have criticized the Yelp algorithm, which determines which reviews will be displayed on their pages. They argue that efforts to keep phony reviews from being published also block legitimate customer comments from being seen.
In addition, Yelp has been accused of offering to release a business's positive reviews in exchange for buying advertising on the site. Yelp has denied the allegations.
I'm not taking a side on this issue -- and even if I did, it wouldn't matter. The reality is that Yelp is one of the most widely used and respected online search and review services among consumers. So, small businesses can't afford to ignore it. Whatever your feelings about Yelp, you need to understand how to make the most of the ranking system if your company is regularly reviewed on the site.
Consider the following factors, which play a role in getting your business a good ranking in Yelp's internal search results:
Fill out your profile completely: Like many of the engines we've covered in this alternative search series, Yelp values businesses that have filled out their profiles to the greatest extent possible. So, take advantage of this easy-to-achieve ranking factor and fill out as many of the business information fields as you can, including your company's hours of operation, website address, pictures and more.
Ask for reviews: It's against Yelp's terms of service to pay reviewers or to engage in review trading scams. That said, there's nothing wrong with asking customers to take a few minutes to leave their thoughts on your company's Yelp profile, as long as you're not pushy about it. Of course, requesting reviews is only a good idea if you're confident that the feedback will be positive.
Try to prevent good reviews from being filtered out: Perhaps the biggest complaint about Yelp's service is that positive reviews left by actual customers are often hidden behind the company's review filter. That's because Yelp's algorithmic filter tries to prevent review scams by weeding out comments from people who haven't filled out their personal profiles completely and who have left only a single review on the site. Unfortunately, this filtering process can censor both actual satisfied customers and people who haven't visited a business and are paid to leave phony, exceedingly positive reviews.
So what can you do? If you see good reviews being filtered out of your company's Yelp profile, reach out to the customers and let them know that their comments aren't being seen. You can encourage them to fill out their profiles more completely, review other businesses they know and add you as a personal friend. As their level of Yelp engagement goes up, their positive reviews should become public on your page.
Respond to reviews: Again, Yelp's algorithms reward business owners who take an active interest in managing their company's profile. As a result, responding to reviews can help boost the odds that you'll get a high ranking in the site's internal search results.
When you respond to reviews, avoid using stock responses that make you look insincere. Take the time to leave customized feedback for every review you reply to.
Try running a 'Yelp Deal': Finally, if you want to both drum up new business and improve the visibility of your company's listing in Yelp's search results, consider running a "Yelp Deal." Basically, Yelp Deals function like Groupon or Living Social deals. You can offer a discount that Yelp users claim through the site (for example, a $20 gift certificate for $10). Yelp then promotes your profile to a wider audience in an effort to generate revenue via deal purchases, resulting in greater visibility for your company.
Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure you understand the promotion. There are no upfront costs to creating a Yelp Deal, but Yelp does retain a small percentage of the money generated by deal sales. While you might like to do a Yelp Deal, keep in mind that it isn't necessary to get your business ranked higher in the search listings. Following the other steps described above should be enough to help your company move up the Yelp results pages and capture additional foot traffic and sales dollars.