How to Read Reviews - Truth is in Dissecting the Details

In today's world of online reviews, customers hold great power, but unless you know how to read those reviews you might be missing out on the real deal. Through this post, I'll give you some tips on how to maneuver through the most popular review site Yelp and find the information you want, instead of what they want you to see. 

Yelp is the most powerful player in the review space and whether you hate them or love them, you read them.  You've probably noticed by now that most businesses average about 4 stars, making it extremely difficult to make a decision.  Well, there are some things you should know about Yelp that may help you make a more informed decision in the future, including how businesses who pay them monthly get ranked... shady much? Allow me to elaborate.


When you do a general Yelp search, the Sort By default on the top left is set to Best Match. If you're actually looking for the best place around, I suggest changing the sort to Highest Rated.  I strongly question how Yelp decides what the best match is, especially if you consider my test search above. When I entered a search for an Italian Restaurant in San Diego, CA, it originally came up with a completely different order.  The Best Match ranking had #1 as a restaurant I've never heard of with only 4 stars and 860 reviews, compared to the Highest Rated list which had Cucina Urbana as #2 with over 1,800 reviews and 4.5 stars (and as most San Diegans know, is one of the best restaurants in town).  Guess what number Cucina Urbana came up as in the Best Match list? #26!!! Very interesting.

Sorting by date also allows you to find trends that may be occurring over a period of time. For example, when reading reviews for a resort in Mexico we are vacationing at in June, we found a handful where people reported they got sick from the food. Well, after a bit of digging, we discovered that those reviews all came from the same week in time and we didn't see any others like it over the last 3 years. Without looking at the dates it may have caused us to choose a different hotel; however, since we could see the trend of a specific period of time, we felt comfortable booking and trusting the other 100+ reviews raving about the food. 


Once you've picked a business to read more about, you get a long list of reviews written by customers and you usually start at the top and make your way down.  Well, yet again, Yelp has their own wonky default sorting system they like to call Yelp Sort. Ok sure, why not? But if you look closely, dates don't exactly make sense. In the above example from a local Carpet Cleaner I recently hired, Yelp shows that he has 15 reviews and 3.5 stars. Of the first 3 reviews that show up from the Yelp Sort, one is from 2014 and the next two are from 2012! Just as often as Justin Bieber updates his rap sheet, businesses change their practices and any good consumer should know that recent history is the most important factor when making decisions (Sorry Justin, I'm sure your Yelp reviews would have been stellar 2 years ago, but don't you think it's time to lay off the ganja already?). So I suggest to sort the recommended reviews by Date, that way you can make a decision based on recent reputation and experience. 


Did you know that Yelp actually hides reviews? Supposedly it is to help eliminate fake and/or unhelpful reviews, but if we were playing a game of Bull Sh*t, I'd be calling it on this hand. If you scroll to the bottom of the business's review page, you'll find in small, greyed out print an option that you can click on that states how many reviews are not shown and are not recommended. Let's use that same carpet cleaning service as an example.  In this case, he has 32 hidden reviews, two times more than he actually has showing! Once you click on the link, it will allow you to see those hidden reviews, but keep in mind they are not factored into the current star rating. 

But why Aimee? Why aren't they showing up? The answer is a bit of a conspiracy theory. I'll tell you what I've heard and you make your own decision. The easiest answer I can give (that might actually get me sued I should add) is good old fashioned blackmail. Yeah, you heard me. Blackmail

One way Yelp makes money is by offering businesses a monthly service that basically guarantees a certain amount of views, competitor ads will not be added to their page and additional back end features for a pretty hefty monthly fee.  My husband has worked with hundreds of small businesses over the years and the story is always the same: the day after they refuse to pay is the day they have more hidden reviews (mostly positive, 5 star reviews) and end up further down the search ranking.  Coincidence? I think not. But Yelp continues to deny these allegations and what do I know, I'm just a small time blogger, so you decide. 

As you're making up your mind, let me give you a quick real world example. I recently did a review for CJ Frank Carpet Cleaning. I have a Yelp profile and 3 reviews under my belt, but strangely enough, my 5 star review has been hidden along with at least five other 5 star reviews from 2014.  I can promise you that I'm a real customer and that I'm an active Yelp user, so what got my detailed service review hidden will have to remain a conspiracy. 

Yelp Hidden Reviews 2.png

Unfortunately, many small businesses who work hard to stay afloat in today's economy are held hostage by bad reviews and don't have many ways of combating that except for changing their ways and hoping that good reviews come in the future. But what is a business to do when those good reviews get blocked and aren't factored into their overall business rating? The answer that I think Yelp is giving is pay up or shut up.  Let's help our local businesses by looking at ALL of the reviews, writing reviews ourselves and not allowing our input to be blocked.

Here are some tips that will help keep your reviews from being hidden: 

  • Create and Complete a profile with a picture
  • Write multiple reviews
  • When a review is hidden, call Yelp and demand to know why


Beware of search results at the top of the list that have a small Yelp Ad designation at the top right. These are businesses that have paid to have their listing show up first and does not actually equate to having a high review rating. I'm not going to hate on Yelp for trying to make money or for businesses paying for a prime marketing spot, but as a consumer it's important to know what you're looking at. 

In the end, Yelp is both good and evil, a hater and a lover, the government and the people, all at the same time. It's up to us to be informed decision makers by not taking things at face value and doing our due diligence to make sure that we are getting the real story. If you have a story to tell or an example to give, please leave a comment!