Navigating the Yelp Review Jungle for Real Estate Agents

Earlier this week someone I’ve never met, Paul B from Round Rock, blessed Crossland Real Estate with a disparaging 1-Star review on Yelp. It reads:

Unprofessional and unpleasant demeanor.  General lack of realistic market knowledge and trends.  Probably better suited as a property manager, but lacks the proper people skills to be effective as either a listing or selling agent.  Argumentative and combative.

Definitely would NOT recommend, especially as a listing or selling agent

It’s hard to describe how jarring this was to read at first. Hit me smack in the face. I haven’t felt a jolt like that since the final scene in Boogie Nights. Crossland Real Estate has escaped all such “bad reviews” online until now, though I knew the day would come. After the initial shock and dismay, it settled in that Crossland Real Estate now had a 1-star rating on Yelp, which in turn displays next to certain search results. Not good. Not the sort of visual indicator that motivates a prospective new client to click through to our website from a search results page. For a moment I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling and thought, “it was so much less complicated in 1993”.

To add insult to injury, Yelp has “filtered” the two legitimate 5-star reviews and the 4-star review written by actual past clients of ours because the reviews are deemed “suspicious”. Yelp considers those reviews “suspicious” because they are the only Yelp reviews written by those reviewers. I actually talked to a Yelp rep about this last year and he said that the automatic “filtering” system hides solo 4 and 5-star reviews to prevent abuse. That makes sense, but these are actual client reviews, not bogus made up reviews. Yet, since Paul B from Round Rock has written 12 reviews, he’s considered a valid Yelp reviewer, even though, as I reported to Yelp, he’s never been a client of ours and we know not who he is or why he wrote what he wrote.

So, determined not to let a 1-star review from Paul B of Round Rock stand as the only visible Crossland Real Estate review on Yelp, I decided I needed to somehow dilute Paul B’s opinion with some rebuttal reviews more reflective of the truth. But this needed to be done without running afoul of Yelp’s rules. Here’s what I did.

After reading through Yelp’s rules, I found that asking for reviews, while frowned upon, is not expressly prohibited. Here is what Yelp says in its FAQ section:

Q: Should I ask customers to write reviews for my business?
A: Probably not. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount.  

OK, then. I get it. And I’m willing to get on that “slippery slope”. But knowing that it’s not forbidden to ask for a review as long as it’s not in exchange for special discounts or other considerations, who should I ask? We have a notebook full of paper Client Surveys that we mail out to clients after closings, which they return to us in a pre-addressed stamped envelope. That’s real old school but we’ve never stopped doing it. Just received another one back yesterday, all “10s” with some very nice comments. On each survey is a Yes or No section which asks “Can we use you as a reference?” and “Will you write a recommendation letter for us?”. Everyone always answers “yes” to these.

So, I could ask those past clients, but what good would it do if their reviews are just going to be “filtered” and hidden. What I needed was some reviews from past clients who are also established Yelpers.

Digging around further on the Yelp website, I found a “find friends” section which allows the import of contacts from Google Contacts, Outlook, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. This is the same way you find “friends” on Facebook or Linkedin when you first sign up. I entered my Gmail credentials since all my contacts are in Google Contacts. The process produced a page loaded with hundreds of contacts who also have Yelp accounts. Next to each contact name were small icons indicating how many “friends” each contact has on Yelp, and how many reviews each contact has written. Bingo. That’s the data I needed.

Now I knew which of my current and past clients, colleagues and contacts are established Yelp reviewers. These are the people who can write a review that Yelp will presumably deem legitimate. These are the people who can help me . These are the Yelp users who can help me dilute and disempower the unflattering words and 1-star ranking of Paul B. of Round Rock.

Next was the decision of what to say in a personal “review request” email to each selected contact. I agree with Yelp that this needs to be done carefully and with integrity. Therefore, the message was short and factual.

“Would you be willing to write a Yelp review for Crossland Real Estate, based on your knowledge of our business practices, your experience and interactions with us?”

And then the factual reason for the request.

“Someone we don’t even know and have never worked with wrote a disparaging Yelp review about Crossland Real Estate, so now we have a “1 star” rating. Meanwhile, Yelp hides/filters the 3 positive reviews we have because those reviews were the first and only Yelp reviews written by those clients. This is frustrating and has prompted me to become more proactive and start requesting reviews from current and past clients, colleagues and peers who have written at least 1 previous Yelp review, as you have.”

For any of you thinking of using a similar process to ask for and build reviews, I think it’s important not to request a specific star rating. I would never ask someone “can you give me a 5-star Review?”. That’s way too car-salesman-like. I don’t want just 5-star reviews, I want honest, helpful feedback, whatever the “star” rating. It’s also important, I believe, to not even directly encourage a positive review, or to say anything sleazy like “if you don’t feel you can provide us 5-stars, please call to discuss”. Ever bought a new car and received that blatantly shameless plea for “all 5s?”. Disgusting. Don’t do that. If I ask someone for an opinion, it’s for better or worse, and the chips ought to fall where they may.

I think, over time, those of us who provide services that are valued by our clients will achieve a natural balance of “mostly great” 4 or 5 star ratings that hopefully help review readers gain insight into what to expect should they use our services. No company or service provider is perfect, and I am frankly skeptical of the companies I see on Yelp, especially restaurants, plumbers or other services of a highly subjective nature, with gobs of 5-star reviews. That doesn’t seem natural to me and I don’t believe those reviews. I suspect it’s a result of an effective campaign of some kind instead of naturally occurring. And if you read some of the writings, some seem almost “professional” in nature, too well written in fact. Though I’d love to be so well thought of, it’s not my expectation to achieve “all 5s” year after year and I would never expect that outcome.

That said, as I wrote personal emails all morning and early afternoon that day, sending them one at a time and personalizing each one to some degree or another, the result was a slow trickle of 5-star ratings starting to appear. By the next morning, 6 in total yielded from 12 emails sent to a combination of past clients and industry peers.

One current client wrote back “That bad review kind of irks me.  I have posted one in your defense. Thank you, it is my pleasure to help any way I can.” Others were similar.

Finally, I wrote the “public response” to Paul B’s contribution to the Crossland Real Estate Yelp page. Yelp allows a “public response” in answer to negative reviews. I kept this clean, cordial and fact-based, but also used it as an opportunity to throw in some plugs for our accomplishments and industry experience.

As a result, instead of one lonesome 1-star review on Yelp, we now have, as of this writing, six 5-star reviews, among which Paul B’s 1-star review seems rather silly, ridiculous and impotent. In fact, I hope he leaves it there. It creates a brilliant contrast and, as I said before, makes the reviews in whole seem more “real” than a slate of all 5-stars would be.

What’s the saying, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” That’s how we as business owners need to approach the online world of reviews. Paul Bs 1-star review of Crossland Real Estate on Yelp isn’t a bad thing. It turns out to be the catalyst that sparked a real serious motivation for me to start thinking of ways to proactively address this internet rating/review phenomenon. Without that 1-star review, it may have remained on my back burner. So he actually did me a favor because Crossland Real Estate now has a more impressive online reputation than it would have had the 1-star never been written.

There is more work to do. Aggregating the various reviews we do already have in places other than Yelp and making those reviews easier to find and read for prospective clients is next on my list. Unless there are WordPress plugins or other tools to accomplish this, which I haven’t researched yet, I’m probably going to have to create a “Reviews” page with snippet quotes and links to the full content on the various repositories. This would be the next generation of our “Testimonials” page.

Also, figuring out a way to invite reviews without causing an uncomfortable sense of obligation for those being asked might be tricky. The 1-star review provided a concrete reason with urgency attached. That made for a nice context for a direct “call to action” request for a review. That’s not the case going forward. So, like anything else I want in life, I simply ask with no expectations, and make sure people know where we can be reviewed.

So here goes: if you are a past client, regular blog reader, have knowledge of Steve, Sylvia and Crossland Real Estate, have something you want others to know, and feel so inclined, we can be reviewed at any of the following repositories:

Sylvia’s Linkedin Account – 10 reviews already (must have Linkedin account).

Steve’s Linkedin Account – 3 reviews already.

Crossland Real Estate Facebook Reviews – 5 reviews already (must have Facebook account).

Crossland Real Estate Google Places page – 2 reviews already (must have Google account).

Crossland Real Estate on Yelp – 7 Reviews + 3 hidden. (must be Yelp Community member and have posted prior reviews)

Crossland Real Estate on CitySearch – 0 Reviews thus far. Can use Facebook login.

Crossland Real Estate on Yahoo Local – 0 Reviews thus far. Can use Facebook or Google login. Testimonials Page – 47 Reviews (can’t be created online, just for reading if you’re interested. Havent updated in two years, which is next on my list as well)

20 thoughts on “Navigating the Yelp Review Jungle for Real Estate Agents”

  1. I truly enjoyed reading your post. Your analysis could be inserted into an MBA case study text. Measured, ethical and strategically sound. Bravo.

  2. hi, Steve:
    I still owe my movers a Yelp review. At the end of each move, they give me a business card with the actual movers’ names scribbled on it with “Yelp!” next to it. I was researching them over the 4th of July weekend, and saw a couple of very disparaging reviews. I have never had anything but a great experience, the sellers they served have been happy, and the other Stager who referred them to me has never had an issue… It made me wonder what was going on. After reading what would have been construed as bad writing for a third grader, I decided not to let a poor review riddled with misspellings, poor grammar, and abbreviations commonly used in Texting on cell phones deter me. I actually find it comical that someone would write something like this and post it publicly to try to make their case, when it makes them look like an unreasonable knucklehead.
    I feel this way about Amazon reviews – recently, a book was suggested to me that had not been released yet but already had over 500 reviews. It was by a political writer, and 1/2 of the reviews were 1-star and the other half were 5-star. Truly meaningless information, readily available, right at your fingertips!

  3. Thank you Elliot. I appreciate your comment.

    Michael, you’re example of the book reviews is exactly the sort of game that gets played in review circles. It’s why Yelp has its filtering algorithms to weed out those solo 5-star reviews, others who would know what to believe. But it’s also apparent in both the extremely lousy writing of the 1-star reviews and the sometimes “professional quality” writing of the 5-star reviews. There are businesses that help businesses game the system and charge on a per-review basis for the number of reviews they can produce. I find that kind of sleazy.

    Thanks for the comments.

  4. Hello Steve, I’m a commercial real estate broker, but read your site regularly to see what’s going on in the Austin residential market. Judging by your blog (I’ve never met you), you seem more thoughtful and analytical than most residential brokers I have known, so I’m skeptical of your Yelp reviewer. There are several plausible explanations: 1) the reviewer is actually a competitor or someone with a grudge; 2) the reviewer was a client who did not like the reality check you gave him/her regarding home prices, loan criteria, etc.; or 3) maybe the person just didn’t like you, for reasons unrelated to business (you can’t get along with every person in this world, it’s an unfortunate fact of life). But it’s hard for me to believe that this person wrote a review based on your professionalism, if it makes you feel any better. Just my $.02.

  5. Steve, I work with Kandy at Home Rental Services in Kansas City. We are working on our reputation online and she forwarded me your blog. I thought this article was fantastic, and I know that you spent a lot of time figuring out how to fix your Yelp problem and then even more time with this public service announcement to help others. I wanted to take the time to thank you! Great work!

  6. steve, just thought you’d like to see what some regular yelpers think about the actions you’ve taken regarding the negative review you received:

    i totally support the actions you’ve taken to protect your business and really appreciate the effort that you put in to ensuring you did not violate any ToS.

    wish i were in the market for a house – i’d come visit you! thanks for having such a positive attitude about a sensitive situation.

  7. Hi M1EK,

    > Steve, I wonder if the mystery reviewer was actually the out-of-left-field-negative commenter on your Property Management blog.

    I have no idea, but he’s back at it again, posting more negative stuff. I still have no idea who this individual is or why he’s targeting Crossland Real estate with negative Yelp reviews. I didn’t know the same person could place multiple 1-star reviews, but apparently so. Very frustrating.

    Thanks for your comments Robert, Jason, veek and Miles for your input.


  8. As a previous poster mentioned, this should be a MBA case study. Your abilities and attitude in solving a difficult problem deserve the highest praise.

  9. Thanks Craig. You’re very kind. I don’t know specifically what an “MBA Case Study” is but I surmise it’s “problem solving” for business scenarios. This issue of online reviews is one that I think represents both a threat and an opportunity for all businesses. Especially given that anonymous “reviewers” and their lousy reviews seem to be given greater authority by the review sites than do the legitimate one-time reviews of actual clients.

    It’s frustrating that this Paul B. character can return to our Yelp page and post yet another disparaging comment, and there is no formal mechanism by which his false assertions can be challenged through Yelp. The ONLY way to fight back is to dilute reviewers like those by somehow obtaining larger numbers of offsetting reviews.

    As we all know, happy clients don’t automatically think about going online to post a good review but unhappy clients do automatically think of posting a bad one. In our case, we still don’t even know who this guy is and he provides no specific information in his comments and won’t respond to personal message sent to him via Yelp. All businesses are subject to this arbitrary assault, so it’s a difficult challenge.


  10. I have enjoyed your site for over a year. This is the first time I have posted here. Thank you for your insightful writing and honesty.

    Yelp has a reputation for having questionable practices which are at best grossly imbalanced, and at worst, unethical. People report that Yelp manipulates review placement to get business owners to advertise. A Yelp sales rep will no doubt be calling you within a week because you have shown interest in your Yelp reviews. The extortion case against Yelp was thrown out last year, but that doesn’t mean they were innocent, or that they don’t plant negative reviews and hide good ones to get you to buy advertising (where they then re-shuffle the good ones to the top of the page).

    Encourage reviewers to use Google Places, Yahoo, Citysearch and other less aggressive and questionable sites.

  11. Steve, I am so impressed! You took something negative, and addressed it calmly, wisely and ethically.

    …and then you shared what you did in detail to the benefit of all the rest of us!

    I had no idea that if you only had one review on Yelp that it would put that review at risk of being filtered so easily. I have yet to write up a review on Yelp, but I should.

    I’ve seen some companies with review after review being positive, and could see a similarity to the threads where it was obvious it was the owner/same person putting in all those reviews. Argh. I can see the necessity in having a way to filter potentially fake reviews. I also think Yelp is a bit unethical in their business practices. 🙁

    I’d like to bring your clients’ attention to Angies List, as well. They should review you on there if they are a member. I am a member and have had great experience using their site in finding a real estate lawyer, CPA, housecleaning service for an elderly relative, etc. I have only had one bad experience in finding an air conditioning service, but have learned that the company USED to be good, but is now under new management, hence the incompetence, lying and multiple visits to get something right despite their high rating on Angies List.

    I’d recommend asking for reviews as a regular part of your business practice, because I tend to HIGHLY suspect reviews that were all written around the same date. If I were a client of yours, I’d go sign up for Yelp and make my first review for you, and then continue on to make more reviews for other excellent Austin business!

    Thank you!


  12. UPDATE: Yelp has now deleted reviews from my Yelp page, reducing the total number of reviews from 17 to 8 (plus the original same 3 filtered). This was done with no notice to me.

    One of my reviewers (a fellow Realtor I use to woork with at Keller Williams) emailed to me the email she received from Yelp:

    “We wanted to let you know that we’ve removed your review of Crossland Real Estate. Our Support team has determined that it falls outside our Content Guidelines ( because it appears you have a conflict of interest with this business.

    We hope you will continue to participate on Yelp while keeping our Content Guidelines in mind.

    Removed Content:
    I worked with Steve & Sylvia together at Keller Williams Realty for a number of years. We were on the Agent Leadership Council together and were also co-faculty members. Steve & Sylvia always came from contribution and were involved at KW … they are learning-based, leaders and they give back. I followed Steve’s technology closely; his blogging content, writing talent and online presence was one to watch … I learned a lot from Steve. Sylvia was always generous with her time (still is) and there were many times where we would help each other assess a neighborhood, property or client situation. I have worked with many Realtors over the years, I remain a fan and respectful colleague of The Crossland Team. I like these guys … a lot. ”

    I guess a review from an industry peer with direct and close knowledge of a business if a “conflict of interest”, but a vague ad hominem attack review from a non-customer we don’t even know is what Yelp considers valuable to its readers.

    Not sure what the next move is here, other than to hopefully build positive reviews. To Yelp’s credit they did remove one of the rediculously stupid 1-star reviews, but left the original one that started this whole thing intact.


  13. Thank you so much for this information! This is my new job; working on our firm’s internet presence and SEO, etc (one I know next to nothing about and am learning as I go and your information probably saved me days and days of research!)

    I wish I had found your firm when I lived in Round Rock and tried to buy a house about 6 years ago. The experience I had with a realtor from the Georgetown area was horrible and the realtor caused me to get sued by the seller because she gave me incorrect direction….her EandO insurance and the broker eventually covered the financial loss but nothing compensated for the stress, time lost, frustration, nor my having to drive down from Plano where I had eventually moved to, in order to represent myself in court, ultimately ending up with a judgement against me on my credit record, even though they seller was paid in full! What a nightmare. Now THAT is something to put on someone’s review! You however seem to be a person of integrity and I’m sure nothing like that would have been allowed to go on for several years with your client struggling alone all the way!

    Thank you again for sharing this valuable information and I hope I am able to adapt it to the situation I’m in with the new law firm I’m representing!

  14. Hi Steve:

    I lived in Austin & Bee Cave for several years until recently, and always followed your blog. Now I’m an agent in the Seattle area.

    I came across your blog by coincidence when researching how real estate agents handle Yelp. I setup my own business profile today, and was later dismayed to read of your experiences. Now I’m wondering if it’s a good thing to have setup a business profile in advance on Yelp, or just wait until someone else posts a review! I guess I’ll need to be proactive in asking my clients to post an honest review. You did a great job in handling the situation… but it’s unfortunate that one review remains.


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