Yelp lets business owners talk back. Dialogue or argument?

The popular online consumer-review website will allow business owners to respond to negative reviews.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp.com, is expected to open up the consumer-review site and let shop owners fire back.
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They’ve criticized his coffee – it's “burnt” – and condemned his chai tea – “downright terrible.”

Like many of the small businesses critiqued on Yelp, the increasingly popular online review site, Aziz Benarafa’s Progressive Grounds Coffee Shop has been voiceless in the face of cutting comments from a few unhappy customers.

But soon Mr. Benarafa, and other small-business owners reviewed on the site, will be given a chance to defend themselves against the often harsh criticism from Yelpers, as the cadre of influential reviewers are called.

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The move to let businesses respond to review has been met with both applause – mostly from businesses – and some hesitation from loyal Yelpers who fear the consumer site will lose its bite.

More broadly, this could mean that business getting its say is the way of the future for websites that began as grassroots resources for consumers.

“All along we’ve been thinking about the business end because it’s an obvious part of this discussion,” says Stephanie Ichinose, Yelp’s spokeswoman. “We kept hearing that businesses wanted a public way to respond to reviews.”

But, she says, “We are very careful because it could become a shouting match.”

Yelp set out in October 2004 to become the destination for consumers to hear from other consumers about local businesses. As it grew in popularity and influence – about 20 million visitors look up businesses monthly – some scorned businesses began to complain. They wanted a chance to respond to negative reviews or correct the record.

On Thursday, Yelp sent a message to its most active reviewers, the Yelp Elite, about the move to give business owners a more prominent voice on the site. Yelp wanted feedback from loyal reviewers before the plan goes live, says Ms. Ichinose. She expects the new feature to be active in about a week.

Businesses have been able to privately e-mail reviewers, post basic information about themselves, and to even sponsor their Yelp review pages. Yelp insists that when a business becomes a sponsor, it's still at risk of having bad reviews show up on the site.

Will other popular user-generated sites follow? Rob Enderle, a Silicon Valley technology analyst, doesn’t think so.  “You want accuracy, you want a vetting process,” he says, pointing out that rival businesses sometimes plant negative comments. But, he adds, “You don’t necessarily want to see an argument.”

He worries that while Yelp’s move might be attractive to vendors, it might turn off users who are just looking for frank reviews.

“It sounds like a good idea,” he says, but in the end it may look like either the reviewer or the business owner is wrong. That can be confusing for the user, and would only make the site, Yelp in this case, lose some credibility, he says.

As for Benarafa, he’s happy to have the chance to defend his San Francisco coffee shop. Progressive Grounds Coffee Shop has done fairly well by Yelp standards – with 104 reviews it has garnered a 3.5 out of 5 star rating.

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” he says. “Why not? It just takes a few minutes and if I see something I don’t like, I’ll respond."

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