SEO is a strategy founded on logic; give your customers a great experience and comply with a handful of best practices, and you’ll rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). Rank higher, and you’ll be easier to find when people search for a term related to your business, giving you more web traffic, more brand visibility, more customers, and more revenue.
But sometimes, logical strategies aren’t the only option. If a company deliberately disobeys best practices for ranking, you would expect it to tank, suffering fewer customers and search engine oblivion. That wasn’t the case for the owners of Botto Italian Pizza. Throughout 2014, they’ve been specifically asking their customers to give them negative reviews on local directory service Yelp, in a public attempt to become the world’s worst-reviewed restaurant. As a result, they’ve been counterintuitively enjoying a surge of new business and attention from all corners of the Internet.
Yelp reviews weren’t always a big deal for SEO, but in the modern context of local SEO, Yelp reviews mean everything. Thanks to Google’s recent Pigeon update, the number and quality of Yelp reviews written about a given local business are largely responsible for constituting that business’s authority and rank. The update came as a response to recent criticism from Yelp and other business review outlets that claimed Google didn’t give enough weight to online reviews for local businesses. Now, some Yelp business entries are ranking higher than the official pages of those businesses, and businesses are scrambling to get their customers to write more positive reviews.
So why would a company actively encourage negative reviews? And why is it resulting in a higher volume of traffic?
Botto’s managers, David Cerretini and Michele Massimo, have been critics of Yelp for some time. They argue that Yelp has never existed in Italy, one of the most sought-after culinary destinations in the world, and that Yelp should have no bearing on the quality and success of any restaurant. Mocking the existence of the review aggregator, the two have even criticized restaurant patrons who form their opinions based on what they read on a digital screen.
To prove their point that Yelp reviews shouldn’t—and don’t—have a lasting impact on restaurant success, the managers of Botto started a campaign to offer a 25 percent discount to any customer who leaves a negative review on Yelp. They’re also outspoken about their beliefs, encouraging all their customers to make their own opinions and not take online reviews too seriously.
Despite intentionally going against the grain of best practices, the managers claim that business is better than ever. And with over 1300 live reviews (and growing), it’s clear that their criticism and promotion has attracted an inordinate amount of attention. Many of the reviews are clearly fake, especially the ones written from international “patrons,” but that doesn’t seem to matter. The reviews remain, Botto’s ranking sits firmly at one star, and new guests are pouring into the Italian pizzeria.
So how does Yelp fit in to this? For starters, Yelp is a firm believer that star ratings on their site directly correlate with eventual revenue, citing a popular Harvard Business School study that suggests that restaurants can suffer from a 5-9 percent drop in revenue with each star lost in rating. They also believe that small businesses like Botto’s have far more to gain than chain restaurants, since local restaurant patrons are more open to new possibilities and are excited to look for hidden gems.
Yelp clearly has a bias for their own service, and who can blame them? They believe in their platform the same way any entrepreneur believes in his company. Accordingly, Yelp tries to help out businesses with low ratings through their advertising platform—a purchasable program that gives businesses the chance to improve their reviews and generate more attention.
This program isn’t always well-received, however. Botto managers Cerretini and Massimo revealed that after the negative reviews started pouring in, they were harassed by Yelp representatives who aggressively pressured them to pursue paid advertising on the platform. This only added to their frustration with Yelp, and motivated them to continue their pursuit. Of note, Yelp does maintain an internal “do not call” list, which business owners can elect to join at any time.
Yelp does have an official rule that could land Botto in hot water, however. It is explicitly stated in Yelp’s policy that business owners are not allowed to offer any form of compensation in exchange for reviews. Botto’s 25 percent discount for negative reviews, while unconventional, is a technical violation of that policy. Accordingly, Yelp has sent multiple warnings to Botto about their practice in incentivizing reviews, but as you might expect, Botto has only come back with mocking responses.
Yelp has also threatened to put a banner on Botto’s official Yelp page, warning all reviewers that the businesses offers incentives for reviews, but at this point, any potential reviewer or restaurant patron could easily determine the disingenuousness of the reviews. Not to mention, they’ve received so much publicity already that a simple warning banner couldn’t possibly override that wave of success.
Botto isn’t getting all this attention simply because it has a low rating, or because they are outspoken critics of Yelp. They are getting coverage because they are outliers, going against the grain by doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing. If several businesses start taking this approach, it will become a repetitive, mainstream option, and none of those businesses will be considered “outliers” any longer. Essentially, Botto’s freak success is a one-time result that cannot be replicated, but is interesting to consider.
So how can we learn from this instance as search marketers? For one, it’s important to realize that despite all the “best practices” out there, you can still generate just as much attention by doing something interesting and unusual instead of playing by the rules. Thinking outside the box can give you a bolder reputation, and increased traffic as a result.
Likewise, it’s time to question all the significant ranking factors that Google has spoon fed us for decades. Sure, if you follow them precisely, you’ll probably rank higher and see the rewards of that higher rank. But are they truly the most important factors for your customers’ experience?
Instead of blindly following the rules of engagement that Google has set forth for businesses, it’s better to think about your customers and what features and practices they value above all others. In Botto’s case, their customers cared more about good food and “sticking it to the man” than they did basing their opinions off one consolidated star rating. For your business, your customers might care more about having a great dashboard than having a great blog. Or they might care more about getting a personal phone call than seeing a regularly updated Facebook page.
The bottom line is that best practices—while still enormously beneficial—aren’t the only way to generate more business. Coming up with an idiosyncratic strategy that pleases your customers could be the offbeat tactic you need to move past the superficial measurements of star ratings and search engine ranks.