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…

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

  1. Wilo

    Glad that I didn’t fall for Yelp advertising! I tried their $100 ad credit and saw absolutely no ROI from it. If not Yelp (sounds like you almost pay $40 or more for getting a click to your website), what are better ways for a small business owner owning a mobile salon business to promote in the digital world? Is google adwords better than FB ads? Thanks in advance folks.

  2. David Wilcock

    NO STARS…..As someone who has spent about $500,000 on advertising for a business over the last 5 years, Yelp was the least efficient advertising we did. Their leads are few and lower Tier….and good luck cancelling. After 4 months my account of $1,800/month was finally cancelled. I have clear communciation/emails/letters requesting cancellation. However, their office took the stance that since my letters were sent in, they tried to contact me via telephone with no response to find out why, they therefore concluded that I didn’t WANT to cancel?!#@? I wouldn’t recommend yelp. It’s more expensive than any adword forum or similar advertsiing and clients/customers are lower tier.

  3. Ted Kulik

    Yelp and their Sales the worst company I have ever worked with. Per-click a complete rip-off. Sales people are clueless and pushy. Avoid at ALL costs

  4. Wenjing

    Thanks a lot for the information. I read this article before I had meeting with Yelp sales person. He is really relentless and didn’t stop talking until I said YES to his stupid questions. And the pricing strategy is so tricky considering the per click through their website instead of my website. Shame!

  5. Linda Karageorges

    I was totally robbed by Yelp. I am still fighting to not pay my final bills and Termination fee with my credit card company. I am a small business and I lost thousands of dollars to them that I can’t afford. I live in a very small town and I was getting (87 clicks per week). Any advise on how to make sure I don’t have to pay balance to them. Also, I believe we should do a Class Action Suit against them, what do others think of that? Since canceling I get 1-2 clicks per week…can we prove that Yelp is clicking on our accounts? Please help, as I have to write a letter to Credit Card Company to prove I shouldn’t have to pay. Thanks!

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      Linda, unfortunately I don’t know of a way to prove that Yelp has been clicking on your account. As for class action suits, there has been quite a few but I don’t think any of them have been won. As for my advice (please consult with your CPA/lawyer… I am not a CPA or a lawyer and don’t play one on TV) concerning the credit card company letter. I’d recount on what you were PROMISED by the Yelp sales rep and what you were (falsely) led to believe and how that did NOT happen. I.e. they failed to deliver on their service and misled you – you didn’t get what you purchased.

      Again, I don’t know your exact situation but if your experience is anything like what I’ve witnessed and what others on this blog has gone through, this might apply to you. Let us know how it goes.

  6. Ryan Jeanes

    I am going to try to be as objective as possible. I was approached by Yelp Ads and turned them down at first. They had a follow-up salesperson call me some time later who was obviously a specialist because he made a much better argument but misled me in terms of what was being offered.

    I discussed with him that my sole goal was to drive traffic to my website. He said that via purchasing Yelp ads you would only pay per click, comparing his service to Google Ads. The truth is that you are purchasing per click on a Yelp Ad that will be directed to your YELP PAGE, and THEN from there only a fraction might click over to your website. In my case that was 1/4. Imagine for a moment your price per click were $5 (high, I know). You will be purchasing an ad click to your YELP PAGE. And from there 1/4 might click on your website where (what?) 1/4 might buy something? That means you’re actually paying $20 per click to your website. Imagine the salesman had said that at the outset, you think they’d be selling many people on Yelp Ads?

    My rep also told me that the price per click would not fluctuate month to month that much. Ha!!!! Ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In July the price per click was $1.40. The next month $4.17 and the next $4.62. They had no explanation for why this was. Just “algorithm,” “fluctuations,” nothing concrete, and nothing traceable.

    UPDATE: I got them to cancel early and went back on to see what they are offering for pay per click and it’s now $3.87. Huh? How in the world did it go down? They are literally making it up out of thin air.

    If you would like to contrast this with Google Ads. You are paying PER CLICK TO YOUR WEBSITE!!!!! That is where your customer has a chance to buy something. Let’s imagine for a moment that Yelp charged the same (they don’t; they charge more) for clicks to your website that Google charges. Only 1/4 of the people who reach your Yelp Page will end up clicking to your website. That means, all things being equal, they are already 400% higher in cost than Google Ad Words.
    The coup de gras for me was when the Account Manger called me back after I told them how utterly dishonest and misleading I thought their reps had behaved.. One of the selling points the rep had touted was that a Yelp user could upload my promo video into the photos section. When I attempted to do this, it failed; and when I inquired they said that the video could not exceed 5 seconds. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    To put it mildly, this is not a scam where they offer you a service, take your money and run for the hills. This is a scam where they offer you a service misrepresenting what it entails, and when you complain, claim they are “doing you a favor” by canceling. They even told me over and over that they were “waiving the early termination fee” as a courtesy.
    Yes, if I offer to mow your lawn for $100 per month, show up 1/2 the time and when I do show up don’t even edge as I agreed I would, and you cancel after 6 months, I will be “doing you a favor” by not charing you $600 for the remaining 6 months. Thanks, guys!

    In short, if you are calculating ROI. REEEEEALLLLYYYYYYYYYYYYY make sure you know what you’re getting. I took this guy at his word and was taken for a ride. Go super-mega-logic on these guys: Ask: What am I getting? How does it work? What am I paying? Walk me through it. Don’t let them pressure you. I liked my salesperson and that was the problem – I stopped thinking critically.

    My advice? Type up in plain English exactly what you think the deal entails, and then send that email to the rep and say, “I expect you to go through this and tell me if I understand correctly what I am getting and exactly how much it will be.” If he tries to say things like, “Well, you know, this offer only extends for the next hour or so…” tell him “tough! I’m not doing anything until we both agree on what we’re talking about.”

    If a rep is not willing to go over and sign of personally on EXACTLY what is being offered, then you do not want to do business with these people ever. If they tell you, “This deal is gone by the end of the day…” SAYONARA!!!!! Why in the world would you want to do business with someone who would pressure you like that?

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      Thanks Ryan, that was insightful and I am sure many folks reading it will find it helpful. And yes, their sales team preys on most business owner’s natural naivety when it comes to digital marketing. It’s disgusting.

      Great advice on the email!

    2. Eva Cotter

      thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m in a contract with YELP now and have had the same experience. They are totally dishonest, and I’m cancelling. They charged me 8.63 per IMPRESSION in the last two weeks and my “contract” (I put in quotes because they don’t abide by it at all) clearly states that it is Pay Per CLICK. They are the most dishonest people I’ve ever dealt with (well outside of AT&T’s WinBack program a few years ago). It’s astounding to me that a business that exist to post ratings done by other’s of businesses would be so dishonest. They get NO STARS!!!!

  7. Todd Jeffery

    Thanks for this info. I already knew they are a very scandalous organization, I just wanted to read about the experience of others. I started a business last year and got hit with Yelp sales people calling me and leaving me voicemails, as well as emails. Knowing their tactics, I never answered their calls or emails or replied to them in any way. As far as I’m concerned they are predators, completely willing to extort their former clients by withholding positive reviews if they stop paying them. STAY AWAY! I’m in the web industry as well and have seen this happen with my own clients. My goal is to remain completely invisible to them. Don’t take the bait in any way.

  8. Zora

    I was quoted $2.10 per click (more than I pay for Adwords) but figured, OK I’ll do it. After all, the sales rep promised loads of local exposure and over 3,000 searches locally for my category.

    Fast forward 3 months. I’ve discovered that “clicks” doesn’t mean click throughs to your site. It means people clicking around Yelp on your business. My PPC cost would up over $4 per Yelp click. I paid $1500 for 33 click-throughs to my web site. Do the math.

    The terms & conditions actually do mention this, in very carefully worded doublespeak, but the rep totally lied about costs and expectations. I’ve found Yelp to be a total scam and fortunately only signed up for 3 months before being able to cancel without paying their $500 early termination fee.

    TL;DR Yelp ripped me off for $1500 and I got not a single client out of it.

  9. Rick Nicholson

    I was approached by a Yelp sales person to advertise with them. In the upfront contract, he asked me to commit to a Yes or No answer at the end of our discussion. After I heard the offer, I had to say No on four different occasions. He kept pushing me to a yes answer even though I had no interest in saying yes. I found this site while I was getting frustrated with his rebuttals. In the end, I brought him back to his original plan. He had asked for a definitive answer, Yes or No. I gave him one. I was going to give him a Yes. I lived up to my end of the bargain. I didn’t feel respected in the least.


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