Yelp has partly been successful because it was so focused on the consumer. Other competing local sites, such as Cox’s Kudzu or most of the internet yellow pages sites, among others, have for a long time tried to strike more balance between businesses and consumers. For example, they have allowed business owners to respond or comment on consumer reviews, whereas Yelp created a mechanism for business owners and users to communicate behind the scenes but not directly on the site. (A new local venture from Sears, yes Sears, called ServiceLive allows businesses to actually review consumers. And CitySquares will allow small businesses to completely opt-out of being reviewed.)
Reviews and social media sites have become an increasingly high stakes game for large and small businesses as more consumers consult and even rely upon online reviews in making buying decisions. At the national level, we’ve seen some of this play out with brand image and reputation, most recently in the case of Domino’s Pizza confronting a YouTube-related PR crisis.
As Yelp’s traffic and visibility have grown, more business owners have called for a “voice in the conversation” going on about them on Yelp. Reflecting their concern and the influence of Yelp in local markets, a couple of business owners sued consumers whom they felt had written defamatory reviews (Yelp was not a defendant and is immune from liability in these cases).
More broadly, small businesses who directly saw an impact from reviews on Yelp, we’re trying to have some sort of input and impact on their reviews. At one point some local businesses were trading positive reviews. There was also “magical thinking” emerging among some business owners about how or why a certain positive or negative review might no longer be on the site. (Yelp uses an algorithim to police what it suspects are attempts at gaming.) There were also rumors that Yelp was trying to somehow use reviews as leverage to get local businesses to advertise, which is untrue.
Having gotten the message and recognizing its growing responsibility in the local space, Yelp has gradulally added more tools and services for business owners. Finally last night the company went live with the ability to talkback. Business owners can now comment on their customers reviews. Initially Yelp had wanted to avoid what it predicted would be a “he said/she said” exchange on the site. But I suspect this feature will be very welcome by small businesses, and may even help the site gain more advertisers.