A Candid Yelp Advertising Review – Is Yelp Ripping People Off?

Maybe you know and maybe you don’t… but Yelp (a local search and reviews online service) offers paid advertising for businesses called the “Yelp Sponsorship Program“.


To sum it up, according to the page advertising this opportunity, this Yelp Sponsorship program allows you to:

  1. Put up a slideshow of the images of your business.
  2. Highlight a user’s review that you like the most (as the business owner)
  3. Promote your business as a sponsored search result and on your competitors’ business pages. Target potential clients while they are making decisions about where to spend their money on a business like yours

It sounds all fancy spansy right?  Sounds like you get even MORE control over your business listing which will help “put your best foot forward” and sneak attack your competitors, stealing all their would be clients.

But Stop the Music, Do These Yelp Advertising Features Actually Accomplish Anything?  Or are They Just Fluff Designed to Lure You in so They can Zap You?

Suck Them in & Then ZAP Them!

Before we proceed, I’d like to first state that my experience and knowledge of this Yelp Sponsorship program comes from dealing with them on behalf of one of my clients.  This client signed up with Yelp (despite my warnings – apparently Yelp’s salesman are SMOOOTH) and I got to learn all about this program.

Having said that, that’s only ONE experience which doesn’t make me an expert but it certainly makes me more knowledgeable of this Yelp marketing program than those who’s never experienced it.

Furthermore, in case you are not familiar with how Yelp works, anybody can post a business on Yelp, as long as it falls under one of their categories and is a “fit” per their policies.  And the rightful owner can claim that Yelp page by jumping through some hoops and voila, you have a FREE listing about your business.

FREE Yelp Reviews Page

FREE Yelp Reviews Page

And for comparison’s sake, here’s an example of a PAID Yelp review page:

PAID Yelp Review Page

PAID Yelp Review Page

With that said… let’s examine feature #1.

The “Slide-Show”

Now, granted the larger images and the “slideshow” adds a bit more snazziness to the page but honestly, how big of a difference does it really make?  If you wanted to see pictures, wouldn’t you be inclined to go visit the business’ actual website?

I’d love to see some split test on this…

Favorite Review

As far as feature #2, I suppose this is a good thing, like Yelp for Business Owners says, “put your best foot forward”.  But then they go and shoot themselves in the foot by posting the “Rating Distribution” graph next to it.  This graph, as you can see, shows all the reviews, INCLUDING the negative ones.

As humans, we are so inclined to ask “what’s wrong” that I reckon most wouldn’t take the “favorite reviews” at face value; they’d go and seek the worst reviews to find out why those folks gave bad reviews.

Yelp’s Business Owner’s Sponsorship Program feature #3 is my favorite.

Yelp Advertising… on Others’ Pages

So the idea here is similar to Google AdWords, when someone searches for a term related to your business, your listing shows up (as, “Sponsored Result”) with the hopes that your business gets clicked on.

Here’s the caveat though, Yelp is charging you per impression basis instead of per click basis.  What this means is that whenever your listing shows up in this manner, it counts against your total allotted amount that you paid of (so you are paying “cost per impression”).  If it were click based (cost per click) you would get charged ONLY if your ad gets clicked.

This brings into a few questions, the least of which are:

  • So how much is it per impression?
  • How many impressions can you expect to get (this is of course dependent on the search volume) – bear in mind that this is a LOCAL search and review online system. Which means that you are really throttling the number of impressions your ads will show up because the number of LOCAL folks doing searches related to you business within your area is a tiny tiny fraction of the searches done nationally combined.
  • Are you able to test different the keywords with which your listing shows up (which is costing you money)?
  • Are you able to TRACK the results you are getting on fine details?  I.e. what keywords are converting, when is the best time to show your Yelp sponsored listing, etc.  Basically, questions that any savvy AdWords expert would ask.
  • How much control do you have over this campaign?  After all, you ARE paying for it.

Before I Go On, Let’s Talk About Leakage

What is “leakage“?  Well, in digital marketing term, it means actions taken by your website visitor that doesn’t contribute to your ultimate goal (such as capturing the lead, making the sale, etc.)  This often includes having active links which serve as distractions that take the visitor ELSEWHERE.

Now… take a good look at just about any Yelp review page, do you see leakage? Do you see links everywhere?  But more importantly (and relevantly from a marketing perspective), do you see the box that says, “People Who Viewed This Also Viewed…”?  Do you see how these links tend to be links to direct competition to the business review page you are viewing?

Yelp.com Pay Per Impression is a Friggin’ Joke (& Rip Off You Can Argue)

Okay, so going back to the sample list of questions listed earlier on.  Let’s dig deeper and find out exactly what sort of program Yelp is running (and charging you for).

First of all, here’s the cost for Yelp’s advertising program:

$300/mo – promotes you to 1,500 people in your area looking for a business like yours.
$500/mo – promotes you to 4,000 people in your area looking for a business like yours.
$1000/mo – promotes you to 10,000 people in your area looking for a business like yours.

Blind Mouse TOY

So you are looking at $100 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) to $200 CPM to advertise on their network. In the AdWords world, this is ridiculously high for paying CPM unless you are in some highly competitive and profitable business like real estate and 401k portfolios (oh wait… given the crash of the economy, DOH!).  Even then you are pushing it a bit.  Folks who are paying high CPM on the pay per click networks have thoroughly tested their campaigns, have tracked EVERY single detail, and have all the control in the world.

But on Yelp?  Hellllll no!  You don’t know what your “campaign” looks like let alone have any control over it.  You are like a blind mouse and they are the big bad kitty toying with you.  And yet, they are still charging you an arm and a leg.  And one quick look around Yelp will tell you that most businesses are NOT high-price markets, they are mostly smaller markets like restaurants.

This brings me to my second point of frustration when dealing with these Yelp folks, where’s the proof of these impressions people paid for???  Where are my listings showing up?  And what’s the conversion rate??  Again, they tell you nothing and keep you blind.


Sales Team Who Doesn’t Know Jack and Preys on Toy Mice

Okay, so I had the opportunity to speak to a Yelp representative on the phone on my client’s behalf.  Armed with my knowledge of AdWords, marketing, the works… I came prepared.  Sadly for the person on the other line, that’s more than I can say for her.

I asked about all the things I mentioned before (about click through rates versus impressions, how I can track my campaign, how much control I have, etc.) and she was STUMPED.  She couldn’t understand why we would care about such matters.  As a matter of fact, I’d venture so far as to say she didn’t know JACK about marketing, and yet, she’s representing a team that’s suppose to help us market.

But what REALLY got to me was when I asked her about a 24 hour backout clause, which means that within 24 hours of the start of the campaign, if I am not satisfied with the results I am seeing, I can cancel.  Nope she said… and the reason is because it takes time for the program to ramp up for me to really start seeing results.

EHHH?  It’s the internet we are talking about here right?  I can track clicks fairly easily right?  Hmmm… okay.

So then I went on and asked what is the minimum sign up period, to which she replied, “6 months”.

OMGWTFBBQ, 6 month minimum at $325 a month where you have NO IDEA what’s going on? Thanks but no thanks.

The Proof is in the Pudding – Proof that Yelp Sucked

Against my better judgment, my client went for it anyway, and looking at the chain oDon't Let Yelp Do This to Youf emails he received from Yelp along with how their program is setup, I can sympathize why.

See, Yelp is banking on folks NOT knowing the difference between “impressions” and “clicks”.  They are banking on the fact that businesses will confuse “impressions” with “visitors” – as in, “For $300 a month I can get 1,500 NEW customers every month?  SWEET, sign me up!”  They are banking on folks not knowing how to track their progress and not caring to either.  They are banking on being able to just sweet talk their would be victim on the phone and dazzle them with fluff.

And worse yet, without the clients being able to track the campaign, Yelp is able to get folks to resign, again and again, by giving out meaningless stats.

To give you a perspective of just how much SUCKINESS is in this program, with the aid of Google Analytics and my idea of adding a page that leads people to a printable in-store coupon, we were able to see how the program performed.  Here are the stats, in 2 months time, Yelp drove 64 unique visitors to this special landing page (which again helps us track the comers from our Yelp advertising campaign) and of those 64 visitors, we got 9 customers that we can tell.

This meant 32/1,500 = 2% conversion from visitor to Yelp to the website and 0.3% from impression to actual customer.  Put it another way, my client paid $72.22 for each of those clients – clients who are just diners to his restaurant.

NOTE: We are not even sure if these visits and visitors are a direct result of my client PAYING for this Yelp advertising program, read below to see what I mean.


Look, You Don’t Need to Pay for Yelp, Nor Do You Want To

Don’t get me wrong, Yelp.com is awesome, I use it all the time to get the low down on new restaurants, find a plumber, etc.  But you don’t need to pay to use it!  Business owners can get free Yelp review pages and those rank (from a search engine optimization perspective) just as well as the paid for pages.

This means you’ll get traffic regardless!

Hope this was enlightening for you.  Like I said earlier on, I’ve had only one experience with Yelp and boy was it a horrible one.  I’d love to hear some success stories and some proof that it worked.

Until then, don’t pay Yelp a dime to join in on their “Yelp for Business Owners” program, especially if you are a restaurant owner.

Raymond Fong

If you are looking for real trackable result, I’d like to recommend you take a look at our gowth hacking agency. We help businesses (both startups and traditional businesses) gain more exposure, get more leads, obtain more customers, and ultimately add to their bottom line leveraging the internet.


P.S. You might be interested in this post I wrote as well, “Yelp Strikes Again…

401 thoughts on “A Candid Yelp Advertising Review – Is Yelp Ripping People Off?

  1. Lilia

    All i can say is WOW. Wish i had read this sooner. Now i understand about clicks vs. impressions. Yelp really got me and sucked me in for a whole year. They’re constantly calling about setting up video shoots (which i didn’t want) and let’s make your site better…I want to bury my head in the sand for the year until they go away.

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      Sorry to hear that. Hopefully now you can leverage your understanding of impressions vs clicks and get more insights into how your Yelp ads have been (or not) performing.

  2. Marc

    I actually pay for Yelp advertising and I do very well with the advertising however, after advertising with them for almost two years we have 85 five star reviews and one 3 star. I feel that my reviews should stand on their own and I should now be able to stop paying for this advertising but really… We’re afraid. We feel that we will be “punished ” once we stop paying them so yea.. I was Feeling slightly extorted before reading this. And after reading these comments and the blog post, feeling like I will be penalized.
    This sucks. 🙁

  3. Dustin B


    I have had these people call non-stop. I finally let them have it. I have a zero star rating with 9, 5 star reviews on one of our branches pages. I told the guy I would only do it if they can help bring my good ratings into the light. Did advertising with them help surface good reviews at all?

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      I don’t have empirical data that it does but you can find folks say that’s what happened to them… And this is the crux of the problem – business owners feel like they are being extorted by Yelp. “Your 5 start reviews will NOT show until you pay us to ‘advertise’ with us.” This is the whole scandal that’s going on.

  4. David Younge

    I also spoke to a yelp agent today who seemed agressive and determined to get me to sign over the phone. I told her we dont do things that way. The scary thingsis so showed us our page and we too had 64 unique visitors and 9 customers that we can tell??? That is crazy weird.
    IN Canada they made CBC -Canada news for bullying and misleading business practices see link http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/yelp-accused-of-bullying-businesses-into-paying-for-better-reviews-1.2899308
    I was seriously considering signing up until more clear googling discovered even until 2016 so much destructive media psots, news feed as well.

  5. Debbie Ironside

    I wish I found this in my research on Yelp advertising before I signed but I did not and am unfortunately paying for it! I had a gut feeling after I signed the contract I had made a mistake so I emailed them the next day and said I am not going forward for 1,2,3 reasons and cancelled everything. They kept calling me back day after day with different assiciates and wanting to explain the program, saying I did not understand and they want to help. This was all to keep me on the hook, obligated to pay because we were talking and they had not yet taken my ad down. They still debited my account 25 days after I cancelled and charged me for a video I never made. First they sold me on $2/click, as I was viewing the trafic I called and asked why is my account saying I am up to $100 plus when I have only had 15 clicks, it ahould be $30. They said Im paing $9/click because there is no competition in my area! So basically I am paying 450% more because there are no other business to compete with on advertising. So no matter how many clicks you get you pay the full amount in the end. It will never be less than the bracket in which you signed up under. I do not recommend the advertising program with Yelp. Use only the free options. And they have my bank details? how do you stop big business from ripping you off?

  6. Tanya Ray

    I am a small business owner and feel I am being bullied by Yelp. I did sign up for one of their ad programs where they offer customers a deal ($10 for $20 of merchandise) to be redeemed at my store. This is the only ad I wanted and did not want any ongoing “pay per click” advertising. They are now having a collection agency contact me saying I owe them money for self service pay per click ads. When I called them, I was hung up on once and basically told that I signed up for it so I needed to pay for it. I asked them to email me the document showing I agreed to it and they will only send a generic copy of basic terms and agreements. Stay away from Yelp ads.

  7. Wael

    I am a small business and I am extremely not satisfied with Yelp ads. This is my third month with Yelp and yet I don’t really understand how the ad works. All I am getting from Yelp are sales calls from untrustworthy marketing companies that “wanna promote my business”, all those companies has very bad reviews as well. I wish I read this before I signed up with Yelp ad.

  8. patrick

    I wish I would have read this article sooner. I got suckered in by Yelp. Its definitely a scam as far I can tell. Whoops.

  9. Renate Gray

    I am a small salon and my experience with yelp was very much the same as everyone has explained. I had the feeling that the clicks created were done by the sales people that ran up clicks so that it could warrant a higher price for the yelp add. Also, how I got reeled in, was that they mentioned that s.o. had posted a very favorable review on my supposed “free yelp”, which I didn’t know I had. It was a 5 star review and looked like it could have been one of my walk-ins. However when I had mentioned that I didn’t really belief in advertising a false claim, they put this review into hiding and I was never able to take it out of that mode. In fact people couldn’t give positive or negative reviews. I was under the impression that the monthly up to 275 clicks would cost me $60 which was the sales persons pitch. When I got my first bill it was over $ 300. My calls did not increase by much, if at all, and they promoted things I didn’t even offer. When asking to change my menu, they offered up some singles platform which cost another $100 every time you wanted to change a menu item. This platform is an independent company who make the changes for extra money, you shouldn’t have to spend, since it was supposed to be all included in the yelp advertisement.
    When I complained about not getting phone calls regarding the yelp add, they accused me that I needed to post different pictures not ones to show my establishment, but before and after pictures of clients, which is not what I wanted to do. Putting pictures of clients online is not what my clientele wants and I can’t belief that that is the only factor of not getting the client to come to my establishment. I think that there are people who create the clicks that are either the sales staff, or friends. I also couldn’t ever see where the person lived who viewed my add, or where the clicks got created. I was wondering if there could be a collective law suit made by all of those who were cheated by yelp. I am personally not affluent enough to go against a large corporation, but if enough people signed up, I would join their cause. Thank you for listening.

      1. Dainah Craft

        Hi Raymond,

        I am trying to figure out if “the best of yelp” are paid advertisers. One of my local competitors keeps showing up on my page as the best of yelp even though they only have 2 reviews on their business.

        Yelp has been a bit a nightmare recently. I had to fight with them to get my picture approved so I could respond to a negative review. They delayed me days, and only approved it after I accused them of suppressing my free speech and my right to respond.

        I’m looking forward to watching your documentary.

        Any light you could shed would be awesome!

  10. Raz Allen

    I too am dissatisfied with Yelp Advertising. I am a small business with no budget for advertising. I resisted the sales calls for a year or more. When finally, I wanted to give something new a try, I guess the Universe wanted me to learn a new lesson the hard way. Luckily my lesson only lasts 3 months and not the whole 12 months the rep wanted me to sign up for. Here are a couple of things to watch out for.
    1) the rep will start with the most expensive package, including the “professional” slide show photos of your business. Does the word professional sound expensive?
    well, it is. You can opt out of this part of the advertising deal but you will still pay through the nose.
    2) I like to look up reviews as much as anybody but conveniently Yelp doesnt have a Yelp page. Search independently though, there are more and more comments
    about this issue with Yelp.
    3) know the difference between “impressions” and “clicks”. Yelp is banking on you not knowing how to track their progress and not caring to either. This sounds like
    false advertising to me. Any lawyers reading this out there that care to take this program on????
    4) the Yelp team has a scripted answer for everything. What? your not getting any calls? You must add or change your photos, gussy up your specialties or change
    your category. I have done these edits a few times with no customer results. THe Yelp team counts on this, it keeps you busy working on that stuff and not on the
    phone with them. But how many times can I change that stuff?
    5) you will get a list of clicks to your website ( i only had 6 yep 6 to my ad in the month of June but somehow my budget was all used up)this list is deceiving as clicks
    (what Yelp calls them), are not what you are paying for; see above #3)
    6) even though Yelp has you believe that you have a budget and if not enough clicks you wont use it up…thats not true.Yelp will get all of your budget money.
    7) the cost per click (ie impression) goes up Yelp says, according to competition. my clicks when up from $2 to what ever 6 clicks per month makes it to be to use all
    the budget. There is no cap of what that could be. They of course, dont explain this to you.
    Most people that are reaching out to this type of advertising have no clue of what to look for in a campaign, what questions to ask etc.
    I didnt find this to be, in any way, a rewarding or positive experience. Your money would be better spent elsewhere. Just read all of the comments on the internet.
    I hope this helps others. Another quick note. I wanted to make sure my space rent was paid before Yelp ad. I received an email that my card declined with YElp (no surprise since they took all of my money on the last two months)the email says the campaign will be stopped until paid (great ) and the rep said there are no penalties for paying late. So luckily, I can recover from this and still pay my rent.

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      You’re not alone and you’re spot on about Yelp banking on business owners not knowing the right questions to ask and taking advantage of business owners who lack knowledge about marketing. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Elaine Carlton

    I have had a terrible time with Yelp Advertising. I have gotten not results in 8 months of advertising. I am paying too high a price for the advertising as well. On top of that there is a cancellation fee if your end your contract early and they have the ability to charge your account whenever they want. Terrible customer service. No one seems to have the correct information.
    Do yourself a favor and spend your advertising dollars elsewhere. I hope this helps someone not make the same mistake I did.

  12. Mario

    I’m a so. California photographer, I have a free listing with Yelp with a couple of good reviews in it and it’s all cool.

    On the not so cool side of things are the Yelp telemarketers, they’re very aggressive- They call me non-stop from different states. Their MO reminds me of those google scams so common this day.

    After reading your article, I’m very grateful for the info. I’ll steer off of Yelp paid ads for now.

    Thanks 🙂


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