The Ultimate Yelp Survival Guide

A marketing field guide for small businesses on Yelp


Over the past 2 years, I've turned Yelp into the strongest marketing channel for my business. 

There were a lot of lessons learned and mistakes made. I'm sharing my top tips with you so you can skip the headaches and turn Yelp into a viable marketing channel. 

For business owners Yelp sucks … we all HATE Yelp. We hate it for obvious reason.

The rule of doing great they’ll tell 1 person, do poorly they’ll tell 10 is magnified. Yelp puts it all out there. As business owners, we have little to no recourse. Which makes us all feel, well...helpless and at the mercy of those customers we all hate but have to deal with.

On the flip side, people love writing 1-star reviews...

It makes people feel powerful… They didn’t treat you right as a customer... they should suffer! We’ve all had bad experiences, I get it.

As a personal rule, I never leave reviews unless they’re positive … but that’s because I’ve been on the other side more.

I came across this YouTube video recently.

It’s funny because it’s true!  We’ve all met these people.

There’s good news....Yelp isn’t all bad for business owners. In fact, Yelp helped my business get 30-60 new customers a month with very little invested. Like any other marketing channel, all I had to do was learn it.

I’m going to run you through my Yelp strategy from start to finish. By the end of this, you’re going to be ready to kick ass on Yelp.

Yelp has a basic formula that I’ve seen work time and time again. First I’m going to cover the basics, then I’ll go over this formula.

Hyperlinks included so you can skip to the juicy parts if you think you’re a smarty pants who doesn’t need Yelp 101. ;)


The first place I always check when people tell me Yelp isn’t working for them is the setup. Many entrepreneurs forget about basic marketing and conversion rate principles when setting up.

When looking for a business on Yelp people follow a pattern:

  1. Do a search

  2. Look at the rating

  3. Look at the main photo

  4. Click to the Yelp page

  5. Look at a few more photos

  6. Read the first few reviews

  7. Make a buying decision.

Customers can drop off at any point on that journey if they don’t like what they see. You have to nail it on all fronts to keep them interested.


Thumbnail/main photo

The picture is usually about the third thing people look at off a Yelp search. The main photo you set will end up as a 90x90 pixel thumbnail. Always keep this in mind when you’re choosing your photo.

For service based businesses a smiling happy person or people work great. For restaurants, some professional and super tasty looking food porn shots work amazing.

The key is to make sure the photo is intelligible and makes sense as a thumbnail. In the main picture, you can tell from the thumbnail that it’s a smiling person cleaning. Which is perfect for my business.


I’d also avoid too much text, your company logo, or a picture of the building.

I see a lot of businesses use their logo as the main photo. I wouldn’t do this. Without a lot of brand recognition, this doesn’t usually entice people to click. If you’re a Starbucks or Target with brand recognition this changes but until you get there. Avoid your logo.


Other Photos

Once we’ve gotten them to click you need to close the deal.

After they click on your thumbnail they’ll most likely look at the rest of the photos on the page. These include photos uploaded by you and the Yelpers.

For service based business, I love before and after photos. But make sure the before and after photos are in the same picture. I do this to avoid any one of the photos just looks like a pile of garbage. I want to get the whole message across in one image. You never know if your potential customer will click the next photo.

Here’s an example of one of my before and after photos.


Provide everything and make sure it’s all accurate!

Hours of operation, website, email, phone number all need to be on point. Make sure people can get a hold of you. Including your categories. Pick the categories that most closely relate to your business.

Be sure to fill out things like the specialties, history, meet the owner and other sections. These aren’t as important but they could be a deciding factor for someone who’s doing some real digging. So, take the 5 minutes to fill this out.



I run a home cleaning service. There are other categories like janitorial services which are similar. Since these are more related to office cleanings that I don't do, I don't include them. Stuffing these in doesn’t  help us. Stick to what you actually do.

After getting things setup, it’s time to build reviews, and start paying Yelp.

Ratings Basics

Your goal with a Yelp rating should be 2 fold. #1 Be as close to 5 stars as possible. #2 Get as many reviews as possible.

For the average rating, Yelp seems to take into account historical ratings. They also have a few other factors that I believe add up.

What I mean by that is, if you average out a Yelp page’s reviews (math) and you get a 4.873 as your average. Yelp never shows the actual average. They round up or down but not consistently. So Yelp might decide to show a 4.5 or 5-star average. The average seems to be related to historical performance more than where you are today.

As an example, I’ve seen Yelp pages have 4.3 rating and round up to show 4.5 and I’ve seen them with 4.98 and rounded down to 4.5. The biggest trend is historical performance.

Note: This isn’t something I’ve tested, just observed. The main take away is, Yelp doesn’t give you the mathematical average. They have something else going on in the back-end.

This is good and bad. It’s good in that if you get a 1-star review from a disgruntled customer, it won’t show in your average right away. On the same note, if you start getting a ton of Yelp reviews turning a company around. It could take much longer to see the effects.  

This means you need to have an ongoing effort to get great reviews and maintain them.

Getting Great Reviews

I want to start this section off by saying, the best way to get 5-stars... is to offer a great product with great customer service! Bar none.

The strategies I’m sharing here will help massage your ratings but they can only do so much. At some point, the main strategy is offer a great service.

The first thing we need to talk about is all those damn hidden reviews…

What Gets Hidden & Shown

The biggest frustrations I see business owners having is how many ratings Yelp is hiding. It's that stupid “not recommended” section that drives us all up the wall! It’s not unusual for Yelp to hide more than half the legitimate reviews you get. So don’t get surprised when this happens.

Yelp is trying to weed out fake reviews and prop up reviews it thinks are authentic.

What’s Yelp looking for?

To recommend a review, Yelp looks for an authentic account. They haven’t released specifics on this so I don’t know if this list is 100% accurate but from what I’ve read.

Yelp looks for the following:  

  • Does this account have a picture

  • Has this account posted multiple reviews

  • Has this account checked-in

  • Have they linked their Facebook or Email contacts

  • Are they reviewing places they’ve been, cities they’ve lived

  • Have they posted reviews with pictures

  • Have the logged in on their mobile phone

We don’t know how heavy Yelp weighs these but we do know some if not all factor in.

Because of this, it’s next to impossible to get fake reviews. I wouldn’t even try. Anyone promising fake reviews won’t deliver. You’ll be wasting your money and the reviews will get hidden.

But there are some tricks we can use to get these reviews to stick better…

Getting Reviews to Stick

Reviews come and go off Yelp. You might have a 5-star review from a Yelp Elite one day. Then it’s gone the next.

As mentioned earlier, most of what makes a review stick have to do with the profile of the reviewer. We don’t have a lot of control over most of this. However, there are a few things we can do to help our authentic reviews stick around a bit longer.



One of the biggest mistakes I see business owners making is only replying to negative reviews. This is a huge opportunity loss. Which is why I say, it’s important to reply to each review. Not just the bad ones…

When I get a positive review, I’ll always spend a few minutes to writing a reply. Not only is this a great opportunity to say thank you to someone for supporting your business. It makes you look like a total mensch.


This will also help push negative reviews down. Bonus points! ;)

Slightly Related Local SEO Tip: Throw a few SEO keywords into your review replies. This helps increase the keyword relevancy of the page. It will also build the page’s credibility as a citation for local SEO. I haven’t tested this myself but have seen some very convincing case studies. :)


Like and Complement

The interactions a review get’s is a signal Yelp can uses when it’s picking which reviews to recommended. That's why they have those “useful” and “cool” buttons under each review. If a review gets a lot of people telling Yelp it’s “funny” that’ a good sign Yelp wants to keep that review around. Same thing with leaving compliments for good reviews.

As the business owner, you should be marking reviews as useful or funny. Not only does this help foster a great Yelp community. It also makes people feel good for leaving a helpful review. Then, the reviews that get interacted with more have a higher chance to stick around.


Use a system to encourage reviews

The long and short of this section is the easiest way to get more reviews is to ask!

In our service, we follow up with every customer via phone. Then, we email them the next day if we don’t hear back. We ask a simple question.

How did we do? The options we give people are Good, Okay, or Bad.

If they say okay or bad we take the necessary steps to remedy the situation and make sure we fix any holes in the service.

If they say it was good, we politely ask if they could share their experience.

We manually do this over the phone and have an automated process for email follow ups. We do this via our scheduling software with Launch 27.


There are a few other software services that offer automated email feedback. This could also be built in house pretty easily. Search around for long enough and I’m sure you’ll find a solution that works for your business.


Some services I know about:

This same concept could be done with table tents at a restaurant or any other number of creative ways. So if you're not collecting phones numbers and emails for every customer. It's time to get creative.

The basic concept is when someone has a bad experience they want to be heard. Giving people a direct line of communication to let you know when they weren’t happy. This helps you cut off the negative reviews at the pass. With the added benefit of providing a higher level of service.

Win, win!

Now, this great and all but what happens when we get the inevitable 1-star review?

Removing Negative Reviews From Yelp

The trick to keeping a 5-star rating isn’t never getting a negative review. It’s removing those reviews as quickly as you can.

In my business, we always collect phone numbers and email address. This is a HUGE leg up when it comes to keeping your Yelp page pristine.

For me, I’m always logged into the Yelp app on my phone and Yelp review emails go to me and my manager. We check each review that comes in and make sure there’s nothing we need to address. Anything below a 4-star and we’ll try and get it removed or updated.

When addressing any customer's complaint we start with a system called H.E.A.R.D. Check out the link for more info.

The basic premise is, Hear them out, Empathize, Apologize, Remedy the situation. Then, Diagnose the issue so it won’t happen again. Get it? H.E.A.R.D.!

This has worked really well for disarming just about anyone. It also offers a great template for just about anyone answering emails or phone calls.

Sometimes you give a refund. Other times they want someone to listen to them.  

Most of the time we can get reviews removed simply by calling the person who left the review. There are cases where customers can be non-responsive. This makes it a little trickier.

If someone won’t respond to remove their negative Yelp review

The important thing here is you have their contact information ahead of time. For service based businesses this is a lot easier. You can still do some of this with feedback cards or reservations at restaurants.  

We got the review below from a customer we already talked to. They declined our resolution so we figured they were okay with the service and we did what we could. Low and behold, a few days later we get this...


Over about 24 hours, we called and emailed this person several times and weren’t able to get a hold of them. The next step was a text message.

Here’s a basic template we use in these situations.

Send the text: “Hey [First Name], it's [Your Name] from [Your Business]. We have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. Let us know what we can do to make you happy. We hate seeing reviews like yours and will do anything to take care of you. :)”

This keeps it short and sweet and lets her know you want to help. All they have to do is take the initiative to respond.

She finally responded to the text after just a few minutes. Our response after that followed the basic HEARD method we discussed earlier.

Apologizing for the trouble, empathizing with her and trying to find a solution. One that will make everyone happy and get the review removed. See the full-text transcript below.

Text Conversation:


Here's a second example of getting a review removed via text using a very similar script. 

The Review:


Text Conversation:


She didn't get back to me right away. I guess the last text I sent kinda burred the refund offer. I reached out again the following morning. 


After she said it was down. I verified for myself she removed it, processed the refund then thanked her.


Personal Side Note: It's always hard to say thank you to someone you basically had to bribe... but we gotta be the bigger person. I always shoot to leave the person with the feeling they were in the wrong and we're really trying. That way we can have more confidence they won't re-post the review again after they get their money.

When I first got the review I was sad, upset, angry. All the emotion you feel when you’re working 60 hours a week on a business and someone poops on it...metaphorically.

Once I got talking with them they were really just having a hard time with their move and dealing with life. They ended up having to finish a job since we didn’t get up to their standards.

In their shoes, I may have felt the same way. Getting the conversation going and a partial refund was all it took to get the review removed.

So...What if it’s the worst case scenario... you’re dealing with someone who’s a truly spiteful and won’t remove a review. Maybe they say it's because of ….principle, or some need to fill another void in their life that has nothing to do with you?

This will inevitably happen. A fun example is reading the 1-star reviews for The French Laundry. This restaurant is one of the BEST in the country but... someone's always gotta bitch...

Do I sound bitter?

Either way...

Can’t get a review removed?

The worst case scenario is if you can’t get a review removed.

First off, don't get worked up over the 1 and 2-star reviews. People reading these reviews understand that some humans are coo-coo-beans.  You can't make everyone happy every time. We get it...

The best option is to stay neutral and post a well thought out response. Explain the situation, how you did every thing you could to resolve the issue.

In most cases, when we couldn’t fix an issue it was because the customer was unwilling to work with us. Most people reading reviews understand that mistakes happen. What they want is that you try and rectify the situation when things don’t work out.

I use the same H.E.A.R.D. method. Make sure to acknowledge what the customer’s saying, empathize and tell your side of the story. Keep neutral, no matter how much you want to punch this person in the face.

Do your best to paint the picture of what happened. You’re doing everything you can to resolve the issue. The customer isn’t accepting your olive branch.

Spending Money with Yelp

When you’re first getting started and have 0 reviews, paying for Yelp ads might not get the calls you expect. I do recommend buying Yelp ad and a paying for a few other features. However, I’ve found there is an ebb and flow to how/when you should buy ads and what you should be buying.


The flow goes like this:

  • 0 Reviews - Buy Yelp Basics and build the reviews up to 10 with a 5 or 4.5-star average

  • 10 Reviews - Start buying Yelp ads via their self-serve platform. Start with what you can afford. Increase ad spend as needed. Note: Don't sign any contracts with Yelp. They'll call non-stop until you do but just tell them you're happy with the self-serve ads. Speaking from experience, without a contract it's significantly easier to decrease or INCREASE your ad spend at will. That's right, it literally took me almost a month to INCREASE my ad spend with Yelp when I had a contract.

  • 60-100 Reviews - Drop your ad spend down. You can do this at this point since organic traffic will be much greater than paid traffic. For me I was getting about 1,000 organic visits a month and maybe 50-60 paid. The 50-60 paid cost me an additional $300-$400.

  • 100+ Reviews - Cut back ad spend to just Yelp Basic Business Page Upgrades.

The General idea is to use your reviews to grow your business organically to push free traffic. Once you get to over 50 reviews your Yelp page traffic will flip from 90% Ads and 10% organic to 10% ads and 90% organic.

At that point, you’ll be spending somewhere between $500 - $1000 (depending on the industry). That $1k a month will only be getting you 10% of your traffic since your organic traffic will be higher. When you get here, you won't notice the difference when you turn off the ads. So stop spending the money.


The biggest lesson I learned working with Yelp is to never let them talk you into signing up for a contract. I can’t recommend their self-service ads enough. Just know, you’re not going to get anything out of the contract you can’t get out of the self-service ads. Plus, with the contract, you now have to rely on them to make changes and you're locked in.

With self-service, you can literally set your budget as low as $40 a month and test. With the contact, they’ll ask you for $500 minimum.


Yelp is a pain the butt and business owners really don’t like it. In this day in age, it’s a necessary evil. The good news is, if you offer a great product / service you can learn to live with it.