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Yet there is one outside check on the content of Yelp: the courts.
Yelpers have learned that while users may prod them to write more snarkily and hyperbolically by sending compliments and voting their reviews "funny" or "cool," their words are not immune from libel law. A year ago, a San Francisco chiropractor sued a reviewer who questioned his billing practices. The case was recently settled out of court. Late last year, an East Bay dentist filed a suit against a Yelper who said the laughing gas made the reviewer's son "light headed" and warned people to avoid the dentist "like a disease." Yelp had refused to take down the review, though the user has now deleted all but one tepid sentence.
As shown on talk threads, some are miffed that Yelp — immune from liability as a third-party moderator by the Communications Decency Act — will not be there to foot the bill if a business owner decides to sue.
"I think Yelp should be found liable for this," says Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. "They want to get their cake and eat it, too — get all this content and not pay for it — but they need fact-checkers and need to realize they have responsibility."
Free-speech activists say such lawsuits have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights. Yet Yelp does not foresee a lawsuit deluge any time soon: Attorneys are in a good position to argue that Yelp is an opinion Web site, says Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and California has strong laws to protect free speech.
Experts also say that the blowback from trying to quiet such speech brings much more attention to the negative review than it would have otherwise have gotten. Case in point: One ranter against the former American Animal Hospital in Fremont posted the letter from a veterinarian demanding the Yelper take down the bad review or he would sue — right into the review itself. Being threatened almost confers bragging rights. Yelper Daniel C.'s profile motto is "Oh, I DARE any business owner to threaten me. Please!"
"Litigants have this pre-Internet mentality where they think they can control messages about themselves in public," Zimmerman says. "But the online community will see this as a slap in the face and retaliate. ... It blows up in [the litigant's] face."
Indeed, Steven Biegel, the chiropractor who recently settled his lawsuit against a former patient, sounded shell-shocked from the media coverage. "I wasn't aware it would be such a big deal," he says. After the lawsuit blew over, Yelp staffers deleted all the one-star reviews from Yelpers mad about the lawsuit who'd never stepped foot in Biegel's office, and reviewing in the Yelp kingdom carries on.
As Yelp becomes a part of the city's consumer culture, merchants and restaurateurs have slowly made their peace with the Web site. Many even admit it can help. "There are a lot of industries that pay a lot of money for this research, and we get it for free," says Jon D'Angelica, owner of District bar in SOMA. "We look for the patterns, and we address them."
And while some businesses may be ranting, they are also listening. District started pouring taster glasses of red wine into the same large glasses used with bottle orders after several Yelpers complained that they felt shortchanged. 510 Skateboarding's owner reminded her staff to greet customers, even if they're on the phone. Delfina chef Craig Stoll decided to beef up his scallops plate — few Yelpers thought it was worth $27.
Stoll admits he used to beg for forgiveness and offer Yelpers comped meals as penance. "Some people can't wait to run to their computers after dinner," he says. "It's like a sport or something." But after enough reviews, he changed his tactic. He selected the worst quotes from his page — the ones that really burned – and had them printed on T-shirts for his pizzeria staff to wear. "This place sucks!" one gripes. "The pizza was soooo greasy; I am assuming this was in part due to the pig fat," another opines. Perhaps the only triumph over Yelp is to show its taunts don't rankle you. "It's a cathartic release," he says.
Mocking the mockers aside, you better believe that at the daily Delfina staff meeting, the recent Yelp reviews are brought up — some for laughs, some as grounds for improvement.
Stoll and many other business owners have wised up. Love Yelp. Hate Yelp. But you'd be a fool to ignore it.