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Review site Yelp will let businesses talk back

In a first for the 5-year-old company, businesses will be able to publicly respond to posts by customers.

April 11, 2009|Andrea Chang

Undercooked chicken. Poor customer service. A bug in the guacamole.

For years, users on the popular review website Yelp have had the final -- and only -- word when reviewing their most-loved or most-hated local restaurants, clothing shops and beauty salons.

Now business owners are getting their chance. And talking back is sweet.

This month, Yelp will open up its site to public responses from businesses, a first for the 5-year-old San Francisco company.

It's a significant victory for business owners, who have long griped that they were being shut out of the Yelp community -- which boasts more than 5 million reviews to date -- and were unable to address what they perceived as unfair and unchecked posts.

For small businesses, which rely on good word of mouth, a negative review could be especially damaging.

"A lot of times you read the reviews and you read something bad and it's out of your control," said Pablo Brea, general manager at Lala's Argentine Grill on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. "If someone comes in and says, 'I don't like the food,' there's nothing I can do about it."

Despite having a 4-star rating on Yelp, Lala's has received some complaints on the site from reviewers who were bothered by other patrons smoking on the restaurant's patio or who simply didn't like what they ordered.

Opening up the site to businesses will allow the restaurant to offer advice to disgruntled customers, such as suggesting that they sit inside next time or recommending a different dish, Brea said.

"It gives you a second chance," he said.

Other review-based websites, such as TripAdvisor, welcome public responses from business owners.

Yelp, which is supported by advertisements from businesses, has been more reluctant to open its site, although a year ago it began letting owners privately message users and gave them the ability to update their businesses' profiles.

Some longtime Yelpers said having business owners comment publicly on their reviews would be a big adjustment.

"I'm kind of torn," said Kevin Pong, 27, a television coordinator from Sherman Oaks who has written more than 200 reviews on Yelp. "I think it would be good to have an open forum, but it would lose its uniqueness of being for people by people."

Striking the right balance between consumer and business owner is a concern that Yelp has "approached very cautiously," said co-founder and Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman.

"We are very cognizant about making sure that Yelp remains a place for users to talk about businesses candidly and openly with each other," he said. "Although we recognize the need for business owners to provide some additional context in certain situations, we also need to make sure we do that in a thoughtful way."

Business owners will be asked to "constructively participate" by correcting factual errors in a civil manner without resorting to insults or arguments, Stoppelman said. If reviewers object to an owner's comments, they can flag the post for review and possible removal.

Stoppelman said Yelp's newest feature could be as beneficial to reviewers as it is to business owners.

"It really is a win from the consumer side in the end because when somebody comes to read that, they can get the full perspective," he said.

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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