By Eric Groves, Cofounder and CEO of Alignable

Over 400 small business owners recently gave Yelp a 1-star review on Alignable, the small business network, and vented their frustrations with the reviews giant in hundreds of comments. But love it or hate it, business owners agree that Yelp is a force that can’t be ignored.

So how can businesses give themselves the best possible chance of benefitting from the consumer eyeballs that funnel through the site, and avoid some of the pitfalls? Here, we share some advice from business owners themselves.

The ostrich approach won’t work. If your first instinct is to avoid listing your business on Yelp altogether, think again. First of all, anyone can add a business to the site—including a disgruntled customer. And besides, a good number of your potential customers are probably already using it to find businesses. Shawn, who runs a dollar store, points out “Average customers are now using Yelp to find everything. Businesses succeed based on what customers say about them…if people don’t talk about you it will put your business in a difficult situation.”

Eric, who owns an environmental cleaning company, says you won’t help yourself if you allow your page to go unclaimed. He advises, “Despite all of the bad things about Yelp, it is still important to claim a business page and keep it updated, especially if there are factually wrong reviews about you. People who visit the page will make a judgment either way, and I would rather have them see relevant info and pictures, as opposed to nothing.”

Finally, many business owners point out that a Yelp listing is important for search engine optimization. Richard, who runs an SEO consultancy, says, “Setting aside reasons to like Yelp or not like Yelp, it most definitely helps with SEO. Considering the fact that it is a high-ranking website and business directory, I would strongly recommend that any business registers with them…at least with a free listing.”

The only caveat to the advice to go ahead and claim a listing? If your industry isn’t heavily represented on Yelp. Chip, owner of an interactive marketing agency, says, “Think like consumers do and do a Google search for your service in your area…Look at the search results and see how well the Yelp listings are ranking for your industry. You may find that a Yelp listing is ranked very low. If so, I’d steer away from Yelp and would focus more on paid search solutions offered by the search engines.” 

Dealing with bad reviews. Ok, so you have a Yelp listing, but it’s dominated by bad reviews. Many business owners find themselves in this situation.  So how should you handle it?

First of all, give up on the idea of getting Yelp to remove the review, even if you believe it’s fake. Reviews are displayed or not depending on an algorithm. So how should you respond?

Jack, who owns a chain of kennels, advises directly responding to a poor review. “All you can do is be positive to the negative reviews and be helpful in trying to see the issue with their eyes. You cannot get rid of a bad review, even if it’s made up, but you can respond in a positive manner, refund their money, and hopefully the negative reviews fall off.”

Stephen, who owns a cleaning service, concurs. “When faced with a bad review, contact that person and do something for them to remove their bad review.”

Getting good reviews.  No business is ever going to get 100 percent  good reviews. But getting as many as possible goes a long way in combatting the power of negative ones. So how do you do that?

It’s not as simple as asking your happy customers to review you on Yelp. In fact, soliciting good reviews goes against Yelp’s terms-of-use—not that it stops business owners from trying. The issue is that Yelp’s algorithm is expressly designed to seek out and bury reviews that seem to be “solicited.” The biggest red flag? A user who only reviews a single business.

So how do you get around this? Steve, a marketing consultant, says, “I did some work for a marketing firm recently that took a backdoor approach to dealing with bad reviews on Yelp. This marketing firm took the approach of recommending to their clients that they ask their customers to not only leave reviews about them, but to also periodically (once a week) leave reviews about other industries (restaurants, dentists, flower shops and so on) and befriend others in their circle of influence to do the same. Of course, this is against Yelp’s terms of service, but it has worked so far for that marketing firm.”

Jack, the kennel owner, suggests seeking out people who are already active on Yelp. “Best thing to do is find some elite Yelpers and have them try your business or service and get them to post on your Yelp page. Elite’s are the backbone of Yelp and carry a LOT more weight with their posts.”

Watering down the power of Yelp. Keep in mind that Yelp is just one site—and that there are plenty of other sites where your business can be reviewed. Pat, a consultant, says, “The best thing to do is to counterbalance the Yelp Reviews with Google Reviews. Google is the search engine used by most people so businesses should encourage their customers to use it to post good reviews. We also encourage our clients to post good reviews in video format which actually ranks higher and faster than written material.”

Dee, who owns a tavern, concurs, pointing out that other review sites don’t suffer from Yelp’s notorious culture of negativity. “A better breed of consumers review on Google. The reviews are more authentic, and the online culture there is more thoughtful about adding value and actually creating helpful reviews. Google+ gives me 30,000 views a month of my page and I have never had a sales call or given them a dime!”

Businesses can also benefit by setting up a free page on Alignable, the small business network. Alignable profiles are highly ranked by search engines and include recommendations from other business owners in the local community. Consumers view local business owners as a particularly trustworthy source of recommendations, knowing that they will only refer their own customers to businesses they truly think highly of.

The bottom line. Yelp is a fact of life for most businesses today, and spending time to harness its power is likely worth it. As Trifon, a photographer, puts it, “Why not opt in and use this amazing free advertising opportunity? Who else allows a business to list itself for free and get exposure to so many online users? I hope Yelp doesn’t change its model for years. Facebook was free but they changed their news algorithm and forced businesses to spend for advertising. Until Yelp is no longer free, I don’t see a reason not to like it.”

Eric Groves is the co-founder and CEO of Alignable, the small business network where local businesses and organizations connect and collaborate with others nearby. Eric has been a local marketing expert and enthusiast since 2001, authored The Constant Contact Guide to Email Marketing, and believes that local businesses are always stronger together.