Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman celebrates while ringing the opening… (Justin Lane / EPA )
Accusations about Yelp Inc.'s business practices and authenticity of reviews have angered scores of small-business owners.
They also have left some consumers feeling confused about what they can and can't trust on the popular site, which features 42 million reviews on bars, restaurants, orthodontists, body shops, gyms, nail salons, hotels and much more.
Although Yelp is the leading user-review website, plenty of other sites offer online reviews from users. For restaurants alone, people can turn not only to Yelp but also to OpenTable, Google and MenuPages, among others.
Here are some tips to help you wade through the endless sea of reviews on Yelp:
•Don't rely solely on the overall star rating. Read a bit deeper because the rating can be misleading, especially if reviewers are basing their scores on something you don't particularly care about, such as valet parking.
•Change the way reviews are sorted. The priority is important because most users look at only the first few reviews. When you first arrive at a company's Yelp page, it automatically shows you reviews that are ordered according to "Yelp Sort," which is "determined by recency, user voting and other review quality factors."
Yelp says Yelp Sort is applied to all businesses regardless of whether they advertise, but the method raises suspicions that Yelp unfairly manipulates the order. You can re-order the reviews by clicking one of several options, including sorting by date or star rating.
You also can choose to look just at reviews that have been deemed useful by other Yelpers, or read reviews only written by "Elite" Yelpers, people who are extremely active on Yelp and thus expected to be more credible.
•Search for what you care about. Yelp enables people to search for specific terms within a business' mass of reviews, which is helpful when a business has hundreds or thousands of reviews. For instance, if you want to know whether a restaurant is pet-friendly, search for "dog" within that restaurant's reviews. You can search for customer service or other terms to narrow results to what you care about.
•Look at an individual reviewer's statistics. You're more likely to trust reviews from people who write frequently and who have a good distribution of stars that reflect a mix of positive and negative reviews.
•Check out the filtered reviews. Many business owners who don't advertise with Yelp believe that their favorable reviews are filtered out, leaving only the negative ones behind. On the opposite end, there have been accusations that Yelp filters negative reviews for businesses that do pay up. If you're suspicious, scroll to the bottom of a business' page and click on filtered reviews. Then you can decide for yourself.
•Write your own reviews. Some people say reviews never seem to be in line with their own experiences. So start writing your own.
For Yelpers who are confused about why their reviews have been filtered in the past, it helps to include a photo of yourself, to write several reviews to build legitimacy and to include useful information instead of short, random generalizations such as: "Food was bomb."
Despite some consumers' misgivings about the site, Yelp has 108 million visitors a month, making it the place to go for business reviews. Those numbers understandably make business owners with poor ratings nervous.
By hosting 22 town halls in major U.S. cities this year, Yelp hopes to smooth things over with business owners and dispel much of the speculation surrounding the San Francisco company.
"Over the last few years we've ramped up our efforts," Yelp spokeswoman Rachel Walker said. "There's just a general misunderstanding."