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Yelp: Businesses may publicly respond to reviews

User-generated review site is rolling out a new system that enables businesses to respond publicly to user reviews (both good and bad), within reason.

Next week, Yelp is set to roll out a new feature that will allow business owners to respond to user reviews--both good and bad--of their establishments.

In an e-mail sent out to the service's "Elite users," one of Yelp's local community managers Don Bourassa said the service is being set up to give business owners a way to provide constructive feedback in a public forum, as the current system requires businesses to correspond with users through private messages.

"The goal is for all comments to be pleasant and useful," Bourassa said. "For example, if you wrote a glowing 5-star review some months ago about your favorite pub, in which you mention drinking Harp because they didn't carry Guinness...both you and other readers would probably be happy to see a new comment saying, 'Just got our Guinness tap last week. Hope to see you soon!'"

To help regulate the system, business owner comments are given an even more stringent policy than its guidelines for user comments. The company has put up a guide that clarifies what businesses should and should not do with the new system. Any owner-written comments that are deemed disparaging, attacking, or pandering with some sort of incentive will be removed by Yelp's staff.

Businesses that want to take part in the program must register with Yelp. This should give business owners a little more incentive to do so, since they'll be able to directly (and publicly) respond to any criticisms. Presumably, these comments will also show up in the service's mobile applications, of which the iPhone version is set to get an update.

More importantly, this program should help quell some business owners' biggest complaints about the social reviews site, which in the past has given businesses very few tools to respond to negative reviews or unfounded claims. A minute amount of editorial control is granted to businesses who pay for advertising on Yelp, however that's limited to selecting a specific user review to go on top of all the others on the page, and to show up as a suggestion on competitor's pages. Under the new program, registered businesses can simply respond to any comments--positive and negative, directly, and have all the other users see it.

See also: Yelp's credibility problem: Blame it on algorithm?

Update: Here's a screenshot of what it will look like, although a representative from Yelp says this is just a mock-up and may look different when the feature launches.

Business replies will appear under user comments if a business has made a reply, however users will need to expand it to see it alongside user reviews. Click on the image to see how it will look when it's nested. Yelp