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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Barraged by Complaints and Skeptical Press, Yelp Changes Policy

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2009 at 5:13 PM

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The balance of power on Yelp is about to get a shake-up. The San Francisco consumer review Web site blasted out an email to its Elite Squad today with the news: business owners will be allowed to publicly post their response to Yelp reviews in as early as a

week.

The e-mail solicited the Yelpers' feedback, and as could be expected, they started reviewing the change in policy on the site's talk threads within minutes. The response was indifferent to positive:
"It should be interesting to see certain business owners making asses of themselves." -Bewb S.

"I think this is a great development, and it was only inevitable that something like this was going to happen. Especially with all the controversy." - Genevieve M.

"Now there is *ACCOUNTABILITY* for people's actions and words.  Idiots, shit shows, me me me's, and "I wanna be famous so I will snarky" are going to the wayside. This is going to legitimize yelp." -Michael H.

When SF Weekly published a cover story on Yelp last month, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman had said he was wary of letting merchants counter every negative assertion from Yelpers: "We don't want to tip the balance in a way that business owners can shout down consumers. If every time negativity comes out [and] the business owner tries to say it didn't happen or discredit that information, it causes an additional disincentive to

share that information, which I think is important to consumers."

Yet Yelp spokesperson Stephanie Ichinose denied that the change was the result of recent press quoting business owners complaining they couldn't respond to uneducated or even outright false reviews. She said the new feature would merely be an "extension" of the current tools in place for business owners, namely, that business owners can sign up for a free "business owner's account" from which they can message Yelpers personally about their reviews. Ichinose said that the site has gleaned evidence from the personal messaging that business owners would be constructive in their feedback: Very few Yelpers have turned off the option of being contacted by business owners, she said, nor have complained to the site about inappropriate feedback from merchants. "All indications are that business

owners are aware this is a public discussion," she said.

But as a precaution, the Web site will provide guidelines to the merchants to inform them that personal attacks on Yelpers or shameless marketing will be deleted.

Censored or not, business owners were ecstatic upon hearing the news. "I can't believe they actually made some changes," said Pam Unkai of PK Art and Floral Design. "I thought they would never change it."

Others said that they wouldn't go back to reply to negative reviews now. "I feel kind of over it," says Sarah Dunbar, owner of Pretty Penny vintage shop in Oakland. "The resentment and pain lasted a long time and I don't want to go back to it again. But if something new comes up, I'll definitely stick up for myself and tell my side of the story so people can see it."

Of course, more than just the public image of the site will be bolstered by the decision: Angry merchants tend not to want to advertise with the site, so this will potentially bring in more dollars. Or not. "No way. I will never give them my money," says Dunbar. "After everything that's happened with them, to make them money? Forget it."

Here's the email sent out today:

As a member of the Elite Squad, I wanted you to be among the first to know about a new feature that is rolling out in about a week or so. It's called *Business Owner Comments*, and as the name suggests, will allow a business owner to write a public Comment after any given review.

Comments will be the latest addition to the free Business Owner's Account that any business owner can sign up for, and that lets them add Photos, post Special Offers and create an 'About This Business' section (for more info, read up here: http://www.yelp.com/business). As a reviewer, you'll be emailed each time you receive a new Comment, just like when you get a Compliment.

The goal is for all Comments to be pleasant and useful. For example, if you wrote a glowing 5-star review some months ago about your favorite pub, in which you mention drinking Harp because they didn't carry Guinness... both you and other readers would probably be happy to see a new Comment saying, "Just got our Guinness tap last week. Hope to see you soon!" Here are a couple other example Comments.

Comments will NOT be a forum for a business owner to disparage a reviewer. As you've probably seen with Private Messages, most business owners are actually appreciative of honest and constructive opinions, and realize that being rude to customers is -- both on and off Yelp -- bad for business.

But for those few ill-mannered folks out there, we have come up with some fairly strict Comment Guidelines -- and our customer service team will remove violating posts.

We would of course love your help getting the product right, so if you have any feedback about the mock-ups, guidelines or the Comments you see over the first few weeks, please let us know !

Thanks, SYOY, and keep up the solid Elitehood!"

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Lauren Smiley

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