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

*** UPDATE ***

So my agency currently have an unpaid Yelp listing so we can help control the online information about us – we’ve had it for some time and recently, an Yelp representative reached out to us via email.

Yelp email

As you can see… it reeked of carrot-dangling vague generalities salesmanship. For example, “$1200 of Extra Free Yelp Ads” which is meaningless because we have no idea what that $1200 actually does and what those Ads are (reading the Main Post below you can see how misleading this is).

And before that he weakly attempted to build rapport by saying that he “previously gone to school and lived in Los Angeles” and as such… knows the “business climate like the back of [his] hand.

I personally have no idea how going to school and LIVING in Los Angeles would have any bearing on how well you know the business climate. I mean, by that logic, any elementary schooler in the L.A. area would also know the business climate!

And he ended his email with the “assume the sale” tactic by giving me an option between tomorrow or Wednesday (taking away the option to say “NO”).

My response was terse.

Hi, What is this about? We already have a Yelp listing.

And you can see below in his response… he just intensified his salesmanship.

Yelp Salesman Email

He again blew a lot of smoke about a bunch of nothing… “lot of opportunity,” “promotion of $1200 of Extra Free Yelp Ads” (which still explains nothing), “gain exposure,” etc.

Blah blah blah.

And he tried the same “assume the sale” close at the end to get me locked down for a call.

I think he was hoping I’d get swayed by the $1200… little did he know that I knew exactly how absolutely meaningless that $1200 meant in this context.

So I told him straight up,

Go ahead and send me some info so I can decide if it’s something worth us hopping on a call, I’d hate to waste your time or mine.

And several days later, he came back like a dog on a bone…

yelp business advertising solicitation

So the dance continued.

I mirrored his email style and shot back the following response (see if you can pick up the similarities between our two emails)…

yelp response

And this is about the time he called quits because a few days later, he responds with “I will no longer be your point of contact over here at Yelp. You will receive a new rep soon. In the meantime, you can call 877-767-9357 if you have questions. Have a great night.

In the same email, he sends over some nonsense generic Yelp Ads Video and Yelp Advertising information which are nonsense fluff not geared lacking transparency – I want to know the CPC, where my ads will show, how much (quality) impression I can expect, who will be viewing my ads, demographics, etc. But nope… none of that. And unfortunately, this sales rep wasn’t able to help.

With that said… it’s been almost a month and no one else at Yelp has contacted us so maybe they gave up? *shrugs*

All I wanted was to get something in writing so I can hold them accountable but they shied away from accountability.

On a separate note… we had three 5-star reviews removed from our listing.

Deviate Labs review

Now… I can understand Yelp removing the top two reviews – they are from no-face reviewers whose sole review are the ones left for us. But removing Bree G. (3rd review) when there’s a legitimate image, location, 114 friends, AND 6 reviews?? That made no sense.

And of course trust Yelp to leave a 1-star review on our listing by a angry resentful person who was NEVER a customer and even resorted to name calling in his review.


Way to go Yelp.

*** MAIN POST ***

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…

P.P.S. Learn more about “Growth Hacking” and how you can use it to take control of your own branding and marketing (and not get swindled by Yelp) by picking up a copy of my book (co-authored with my business partner), “Growth Hacking: Silicon Valley’s Best Kept Secret” on Amazon.

Growth Hacking on Amazon

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

  1. Anthony Agugliaro

    I definitely wish I did more research on Yelp before buying into their advertising. I run a small electrical contracting company in NJ and I got suckered into
    that exact sales pitch and slide show by a Yelp salesperson.
    Tracking impressions and clicks is impossible. I found most of their data doesn’t match up to what actually gets into my business.
    Matching up the actual calls I received verses the calls they say were sent to my phone are not even close.
    I have been very careful to track what customers are coming from what advertising medium over the past 4 months, and Yelp does not provide more than 1%
    of viable real leads. Spent over $7900 in 4 months advertising with Yelp and got 2 sales worth only $725.00
    For the first 5 month they were advertising outside of my service area by more than 50 miles, even in another state that I am not Licensed to work, when I asked about it they love to give lots of excuses as to how those people are getting to me. But when I set this up I specifically said I only want leads in my home town!!
    More bait and switch. My calls and click have been shown on their system to be from people all over the country, even Hong Kong and Russia. Again they come up with lots of excuses as to why.
    Lately I have been getting people calling for services that I do not provide: Locksmithing, water heaters, Duct cleaning and all sent through their system. Again lots of excuses as to why this is happening. Im fed up!! Cancelling this service now!

  2. Jessica Nuter

    Your article regarding Yelp was very enlightening. We have yet to make an advertising choice. Yelp does not appear to be conducive for small business owners trying to grow their business. Is there another option that you DO recommend?

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      That really depends on your business – there’s really no one-size fits all. For example, most of my clients sell services that nets them high amounts, for them Google AdWords and other PPC are no brainers. But for “small-net” businesses (i.e. restaurants), I would be very hesitant to recommend the same. On the flip side, traditional offline marketing may do well for small-net businesses such as restaurants but may have less ROI for bigger businesses.

  3. Lester Ramey

    Great Articles. We experienced something similar. In regard to our new 16,000 SF, 24/7 state-of-the-art gym facility, we had picked up around 10 published awesome YELP reviews over the past year. Not much happening, but it was all good. We had setup the free, no strings attached, business account. So, we were pleased with our 10 great reviews.

    About 4 months back, YELP contacted me and I went through the same experiences, to the point where I needed to send them money for my additional promotions, to reach more people, and to advertise the business. I had a couple of telephone/computer sales pitches and it sounded awesome. However, I told them I wanted to wait and review other options, and at this time I did not want to continue with YELP until I had time to do this. I did not want to waste their time, or mine.

    Well, that didn’t go over well. They did discontinue contacting me and have removed all YELP reviews. We no longer have any YELP reviews, but fortunately I didn’t lose any money.

  4. John

    Great article. They were trying to rope me in for the $300 per month deal but I turned it down.

    Question though: does anyone have any experience with the “Enhanced Profile”? It removes competitors ads from your page, allows you to have a better slideshow, and gives you a call to action button. It’s 75 bucks a month and I’m considering giving it a try. Anyone have any experience or thoughts? Thanks!

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      I am not familiar with it but before I commit, I’d want to get clarity if that means ALL ads at ALL locations on the page. For example, the ads immediately underneath the map, the “Best of Yelp” area, and the “You Might Also Consider” area. Furthermore, get clarity that they won’t serve third party ads either (i.e. Google AdWords ads).

      And I’d also ask for a few live Yelp examples showcasing others who are on the plan to confirm. Let us know how that goes!

  5. Laurie Moore

    Glad to see this discussion, just wish I had looked it up BEFORE signing with Yelp Ads program. We believe this is a total scam. After the first month I was given their analytics and the bill which showed dozens of phone calls I know we never received: I carefully tracked our caller ID logs and 75% of the calls they said we got did not happen (date/time/phone number did not register) and many that said there was no answer on our business line, which is just not possible. We DID see a big uptick in the garbage solicitation calls and many of these did match our call logs. For this reason we completely do not believe their numbers in the “hundreds” of clicks we supposedly got through the ad listing. We had ZERO calls from people saying they saw our Yelp Ad and ZERO customer orders. Because of their cancellation policy we ended up getting ripped off for almost $1400 just to get out of the scam. The simplest way to look at this is that they cannot provide ANY proof of the clicks they say they generate for your business, which is what they base the billing on. Beware, beware, beware, we would absolutely NEVER recommend the Yelp Ads rip-off to anyone.

  6. Michael Hess

    Yelp marketing is neither CPC or CPM. The Yelp ad settings page doesn’t let you set a price you’re willing to pay per click or impression, so therefore, it’s impossible to even have a CPC or CPM model.

    Their model hinges upon the monthly budget you agree to. They then throttle your ad impressions to try to reach a number of clicks that will deplete your monthly budget. At the end of the month, they divide your clicks to your monthly budget and give you a “CPC” number. But this CPC is made up by yelp as they can dictate how many clicks you get simply as a statistical percentage of impressions they give you. This is why people see their numbers fluctuates so wildly from impressions to clicks to CPC. They can give you 10 clicks or they can give you 100, it’s their decision, but they’re ALWAYS going to take your $300. You’re getting screwed.

  7. Ike

    I’m going to post my personal experience here with the Yelp paid advertising and I hope it enlightens some business owners in making their decision with the right advertising platform. We all know how fast advertising can eat up all your money without producing any results and it’s devastating for new business owners!

    My experience with Yelp, however, was actually quite positive. I own a middle eastern restaurant in Gaslamp San Diego called Pushkin.
    I’m reading all the comments here and they seem to be, for the most part, talking about the “impressions” program. I cannot comment on that as I did not entertain impressions and my Yelp rep recommended cost per click for my restaurant.
    I opened up at the very beginning of the year in San Diego. My restaurant capacity/space is pretty big so I wanted to look into advertising to get customers. I had a free listing with Yelp and within about a month or two I was generating “customer leads”, but very minimal (the Yelp rep said it was because I had a new listing and was being overshadowed by my competitors via the generic search).
    Anyways, he told me some outrageous number for searches happening in my area for restaurants and I decided to see what it’s about. I knew that people used Yelp a lot to find food.
    I started at first with the low package, I think my “ad budget” was something around 350 or 375. I started seeing business immediately, maybe 30-35 extra customers day. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t from other advertising sources I was doing so I made sure to ask & have my servers always ask where they initially found me and a lot came from Yelp.
    I then called my rep back and upgraded to a higher ad click budget and honestly, it’s bringing me a great flow of business. Lots of people come in with their family so I often serve a family for 5 and their son found me on Yelp or something.
    I’ll say this, the video isn’t really worth it and I didn’t see anything significant from it so after a few months I cancelled the video and it brought the total cost down by 50 bucks. I suggest people who think Yelp may help their business choose to not go with the video option.
    That was my experience and I definitely saw a huge return on investment with the advertising program. Maybe one day I’ll be on top of the search and won’t need to advertise anymore but for now it’s kicking ass and I’ve cancelled all the other ads I do in favor of investing that money into Yelp instead where I actually see a huge return.
    I’m not sure how this program will work for other businesses to be honest.. I knew that a lot of people used Yelp to find food so I’m not sure how many searches are happening for other categories, but this thing worked wonders for my new restaurant. I think I’m up to like 300+ reviews. (Quick pro tip for other restaurant owners, throw in some kind of incentive for your customers to do a “mobile check in” through the Yelp Ad at your business. I offer an appetizer and make the customers show them checking in on the phone before giving it to them. This way, if a customer checks in through Yelp, the system will prompt them to write a review about my restaurant the next day. This worked great for me because I wasn’t begging people for reviews and they left happy with a free appetizer!

    I hope this was helpful. I read a lot of negative stuff on here and could sympathize with fellow business owners as I wasted a ton of money on advertisement also with no results. It just so happened Yelp worked for my business.

    1. Raymond Fong Post author

      Thanks for chiming in Ike – appreciate your feedback and glad to hear that Yelp is working out for you. I’d be curious to see what happens now if you cancel your advertising spend with Yelp – how much of your current results is directly attributed to your advertising dollars vs how much is attributed to your free Yelp listing. Put it another way, how much “lift” is the paid aspect of Yelp really getting you vs the free? How much of your actual gains can be attributed to Yelp’s paid ads program. How much gain did you get when you “upgraded?”

      These are the difficult questions that really shed light on how well a paid program is working and unfortunately, Yelp’s lackluster tracking system makes this extremely difficult (impossible) to tell.

      Of course, don’t fix something if it’s not broken but now that you have 300+ reviews, I wager you would get a lot of customers regardless whether you are paying Yelp or not. Thanks again for sharing with us and cheers to you and happy holidays!

  8. Manish

    Thx a ton for saving my startup business a bunch of money, they have been trying to get me to sign a contract 15$ a click or 350$ for 3000 Impression per month. Waht a scam am glad I came across your write up. Thx a ton.

  9. Blockhead McDumnutz

    Got scammed by Yelp and I’m going to dispute the costs. I called to cancel our contract and they say there is a 30 day cancel process so they roped us in for another month. A Yelp representative calls me and says “Hey, I see you have had a bunch of phone calls to your business from Yelp! I see a lot of potential here and maybe you’re campaign should be extended to give it a better chance” I tracked down the phone numbers and called them. Each phone number I called was a BOT. The numbers were for outgoing calls only and the one that accepted my call was a pre-recorded message saying “one of our representatives will call you back”. NONE of the phone calls we received from Yelp were actual human beings but they were Yelp users. How many of the impressions or ad clicks came from these BOTS? I called and asked the Yelp help desk and was told that they take measures to prevent these kinds of things but can only go on information the Yelp user provides. I told them I have confirmed that at least four separate Yelp users are not human beings and asked for some kind of confirmation that the ad clicks or impressions were from actual people not BOTS. The Yelp rep recycled phrases about Yelps policies in regards to Yelp users. Also they will not offer any reimbursements or “make good” for any possible fake Yelp user accounts. So we paid for ad clicks and impressions from fake accounts and Yelp says “sorry bout ur luck boss”. GoT eeeeeeeemmm.

    TLDR: Some Yelp users are BOTS. Yelp offers no recourse for false impressions or ad clicks from these Fake Yelp User Accounts.

  10. Dan Stringer

    This is a great write up. I was considering ways to expand my advertising and you answered questions I didn’t even know I had. Thank you!

  11. Bob Giammarco

    Biggest mistake I’ve made since I opened my business was advertising with Yelp. In my opinion, it’s a total scam. They artificially inflate your CPC to meet your monthly spend to the point where my CPC exceeded $40!! I got absolutely, ZERO in return. I decided to cut my losses and opt out of the program and to add insult to injury, I have to pay $700 to get out of the program.

    The only plus out of all of this is that I got a very nice video made that I use for my business. However, ultimately, that video will end up costing me close to $3000 when all is said and done.

    They scam you, then they force you to pay to get out of the scam. This whole program, at best is preying on small business, at worst is an illegal bait and switch scam.

  12. Stacie F Benefield

    I too wish I had read this before!!! I wasted almost $400/month and did not gain even one customer!!! I work as a freelance web and graphic designer and cannot afford to lose ANY income, but I was told that my revenue would double if not triple! NOT!!!! This was the biggest waste of money I have ever spent.

  13. Stephen Adelson

    I wish that I had read this before paying yelp.
    They misrepresented everything thy could:
    A video ad that would run with the ad has yet to make the page (haven’t received it from Smartshoot and that was the main reason I chose to give it a try.
    Didn’t yield any leads. Spoke with the support staff that said, “your categories are wrong and explain why you haven’t gotten any leads.” When I signed up, I told Yelp I wanted to promote catering and apparently, it’s my fault (according to yelp biz support) that the category didn’t help. That’s after paying more than $800 for their biz ad service.
    That the click thru (have had 100’s that have led to nothing) cost when I signed up a bit more than month ago was $.83 and currently is more than two times that $1.74.
    It’s a total rip-off and you should not sign up for any ad campaign.

  14. Maria Benson

    Thank you for this insightful and helpful article. I will be sharing this information with my small business friends – quite a few of them have been approached by Yelp.


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