Monday, March 23, 2009

SAN JOSE, Calif. | prides itself on being a site where people can write reviews about anything and connect with similarly critical peers. Yet as the site grows, some of the businesses scrutinized on Yelp are turning the tables and griping about the company.

The complaints highlight an irony for Web sites that stimulate online communities and let users speak their minds. As the sites make the world more transparent, giving people the power to discuss everything from a great pizza to a bad date, the sites’ own transparency is often questionable, as consumers and businesses struggle to understand how they operate.

This tug of war has become increasingly public with the explosive popularity of social Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, as well as niche sites such as Yelp, which has more than 5 million reviews on establishments in dozens of cities.

Properly balancing the interests of various constituencies - and retaining their loyalty, perhaps through improved channels of communications - will prove key to whether the sites can grow into vibrant, moneymaking operations for years to come.

Many sites have expanded so fast that explanations about what they are doing often come late, after their users have had plenty of time to air complaints. Facebook has felt such growing pains, and now Yelp is, too.

One big gripe from businesses that get reviewed on Yelp is that they don’t quite get how it works.

For instance, some wonder why users’ reviews can seemingly mysteriously disappear from Yelp’s pages about a business.

This irks Leslie Tagorda, owner of a San Francisco-based Web design company, Flair-Designs. She has noticed reviews vanish from the Flair-Designs page on Yelp over the past two years. This worries her because the more reviews she has, the more calls she gets from potential clients, she said.

When she first noticed reviews disappearing, Ms. Tagorda contacted clients who had written the comments, to see whether they had deleted them. They said they had not.

She e-mailed Yelp and was directed to the business owners’ section of the site. Not satisfied, she aired her issues by writing a review of Yelp itself on Yelp’s business page, giving the site two out of a possible five stars.

At last she got a more personal message from Yelp’s chief executive and co-founder, Jeremy Stoppelman. He explained that consumer reviews may be removed by an automated program that is designed to filter out reviews the site considers untrustworthy, such as sniping that a pizzeria owner might write about a competitor.

Ms. Tagorda was satisfied with Mr. Stoppelman’s response but still wanted people to see what she felt were legitimate reviews that Yelp had hidden. So she put up a post on Yelp about her own business, indicating the names of users whose Flair-Designs reviews have disappeared.

So far, her post about Yelp has stayed up, and she recently added a star to that review, updating it to say she’s “becoming a little happier with Yelp as a business owner.” Still, the whole episode has her feeling murky about the site.

“I think they should be clearer about how reviews are displayed on people’s profiles and what happens with bad reviews,” she said.

Mr. Stoppelman defended the quiet way Yelp takes some reviews down, saying that if the company offered a more detailed explanation of the process, people might be able to get around it. (Online retailer Inc. also uses an automated program to filter user reviews, though Yelp’s main competitor in the business-review market, Citysearch, does not.)

Mr. Stoppelman acknowledged that the fluctuation of the site’s reviews “flusters and surprises a lot of business owners.” Some explanations are in the site’s “frequently asked questions,” but not everyone reads those.

“We need to figure out how we make this bonk-you-over-the-head obvious, so that everybody understands, ‘Look, this is going to happen,’ ” he said.

Mr. Stoppelman thinks there will always be tension between Yelp and business owners because consumers are creating the content, which is inherently unpredictable.

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