Yelp Interview Part 1: Luther Lowe Discusses Recent Lawsuit, His Role as Business Outreach Manager & How Business Can Succeed on Yelp
I recently had the opportunity to sit down for an extensive interview with Luther Lowe, Yelp’s Business Outreach Manager. Luther was in town to speak at SEMpdx’s Searchfest, and was kind enough to set aside some time to enjoy a couple pints of locally brewed IPA and answer questions regarding his role at Yelp, the recent lawsuits brought against their company and how small businesses can get the most out of their Yelp business listing.
Following is part one of my three part interview with Luther:
CHRIS: Luther, how long have you been with Yelp?
LUTHER: I started at Yelp just over two years ago. I started on our sales side. I did that for six months in San Francisco, then for six more months when we opened the Manhattan office. It was in March of ’09 when they decided that they needed to create a role that focused solely on education to the business community. I’ve been in my current role for about a year now.
CHRIS: As Yelp’s business outreach manager, what exactly does your job entail? What’s a typical day for you?
LUTHER: Everyday is a little bit different, but what I’m really trying to focus on is identifying ways to speak to and educate as many small business owners as possible – so whether that’s reaching out to business organizations like Chambers of Commerce, or restaurant or retail associations in major metropolitan areas where we’ve got good market penetration, whether that’s outreach to online communities, blogs, whether that’s going to places putting on a small event for business owners, or creating written and print materials for business owners …all those duties would fall within my scope.
CHRIS: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of what you do?
LUTHER: Yelp is a disruptive technology, and for the first time we have an online review site that does a pretty darn good job at reflecting what the off-line experience is, and to a lot of old school business owners, that’s pretty scary because they’re seeing the era of pay-to-play advertising end. It’s no longer the person who spends the most money that gets the most customers, it’s the person who offers the best customer service…that is the person that gets rewarded the most on Yelp — imagine that! And so, the two most frequent questions I get are, “How do I get that bad review off my page?” and “How do I get that review back on my page?”
CHRIS: Well, speaking of adding or removing reviews, why don’t we jump to the big topic that seems to be getting a lot of attention right now? Yelp’s been in the news lately with the recent class action lawsuit claiming that you extort businesses and that you offer them the ability to pay to have negative reviews removed from their business listing. Is there any truth to the claim of businesses being able to remove or alter reviews?
LUTHER: There is absolutely no merit to it. Our CEO went into a pretty extensive discussion on our official blog (officalblog.yelp.com) on this, but I’ll just kind of quickly rehash the key sort of basis for confusion.
The first allegation is that Yelp modifies or in any way monkeys around with reviews for advertisers, and that’s not true. The advertisers and non-advertisers on Yelp are treated the exact same way with regard to reviews. The advertisers are not able to delete bad reviews. This is one of the current allegations, that advertisers are able to delete bad reviews. You can easily disprove this by going and looking at the thousands upon thousands of advertisers that have any bad reviews. I mean, logically, why, if I-as-a-business-owner could delete negative reviews with a push of a button, would I not use it if that actually did exist.The second allegation is that our sales department uses the incentive of good reviews or the threat of bad reviews to coerce would-be advertisers into buying the ads. It probably is helpful to understand our internal processes, what we have in place to prevent that. So, each sale that occurs on Yelp, every transaction, every new customer that signs up, within 48 hours it undergoes an internal audit by a separate team that basically double and triple checks the verbal and written exchanges between the new advertiser and the sales representative. We call the advertiser and walk him through a verbal checklist to make sure they understand what they get and what they don’t get by becoming an advertiser. Once that checklist is complete…if there is any confusion on that, of course it’s re-explained. If there is still confusion, they are offered a refund.
LUTHER: On top of that is a follow-up survey in writing that we send out, and if anybody says no – it’s extremely rare that somebody actually checks the no box or maybe they check it on purpose, but if there is any kind of confusion about what we offer, what you do and don’t get as an advertiser, and they check “no” on the question “I understand that my reviews and my advertisement are completely separate” they’re called immediately, re-explained, and if they still don’t understand, they’re offered a refund. The sales rep has no incentive or doesn’t get any kind of commission; so basically, what I’m trying to say is not only is there no incentive to do that, any kind of pattern of behavior, or if there were anything that could come out like that would be grounds for an investigation and, if determined true, firing.
LUTHER: We’ve got a long way to go education-wise within the small business community. They’re not focused on the nuances of Internet marketing. They’re focusing on running their small businesses. So the confusion is understandable. We’re certainly sympathetic to that confusion. That’s why we have guys like me out there full time and trying to teach folks what we do and don’t do.
CHRIS: So you were at a SearchFest here in Portland, and you spoke about how Yelp is transactional. What do you mean when you say Yelp is transactional?
LUTHER: There are a lot of folks out there that claim to be social media gurus, and I could find a thousand guys out that that will tell you that Twitter and Facebook are “killer apps” for businesses. I’m not saying that they’re not useful tools; but what I try to draw a distinction between is transactional social media and non-transactional social media. When I’m on Facebook, I’m looking for pictures of my ex-girlfriend; when I’m on Twitter, I’m telling people, you know, what I’m up to. I think businesses are still kind of wrapping their heads around how Twitter is going to be helpful. But I’m not clicking on Facebook ads, I’m not there to discover business, I don’t think I’ve ever patronized a business based on what kind of content came across on Twitter, other than maybe some sort of indirect influence like, for instance, a friend tweets, “I just saw the movie Hurt Locker and I loved it” and I decided that, you know, to go out and watch it on my own. So Yelp is totally different. It is architectured on a social graph. It is a social media site, but people go there to discover businesses. So when I say that Yelp is transactional, I mean nobody’s typing in “plumber” near “Chicago” for fun. Their sink is probably overflowing and they’re looking for a truck with a plumber to come out and fix it right away.
That’s what I mean by transactional, that people are much farther down the purchase funnel when they perform a query on Yelp.
Don’t forget to check out the 2nd and 3rd parts of Chris’ interview with Yelp’s Luther Lowe:
Yelp SearchFest photo courtesy of Matt McGee @ SmallBusinessSEM.com.
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Good interview, Chris. If you ever get a chance to do a follow-up conversation, would you mind asking if Yelp has any plans to make their review system more transparent?
For example, if Yelp removes a review, we have no idea it even existed in the first place. It would be more transparent if it were categorized into a section that is accessible, for example, with an additional click, and to give the public the ability to dispute a decision from Yelp. A brief comment on the rationale for the removal would also be nice.
Another example: Slashdot’s moderation system allows comments to be ranked on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being the highest ranking. There is also a score of -1, which are viewable by setting a filter to include these items.
Yelp can say that they, as a company, is fair all day long, but to be honest, it’s not a terribly effective way of cultivating public trust. Like Yelp’s reviews, we need tools to allow the public to judge equity. By allowing the public to transparently see Yelp’s decision making, accusations of bias can be effectively quashed.
[I originally posted this to following thread: http://www.yelp.com/topic/portland-my-interview-with-yelps-business-outreach-manager%5D