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Yelp gives business owners a public voice

New feature on the community reviews site lets business owners respond to negative reviews or or what they see as unfounded claims.

In response to criticism that small business were largely powerless against negative reviews on Yelp, the community reviews site has rolled out a feature that allows business owners to respond to reviews of their establishments, whether good or bad.

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman wrote in a company blog Thursday that the free feature was rolled out Wednesday:

Last night we rolled out a highly anticipated feature that allows business owners to publicly comment on their reviews. Already we've seen a number of sharp-eyed businesses make good use of this new functionality to provide additional context around specific reviews for the benefit of consumers and yelpers alike.

The service was created to give business owners a way to provide constructive feedback in a public forum, instead of the previous system, which required businesses to correspond with users through private messages, Yelp told its "elite users" in an e-mail earlier this month. The feature is expected to help quell some business owners' biggest complaint about the social reviews site--that businesses had few avenues to respond to negative reviews or unfounded claims.

Business owner comments will be given a more stringent review than user comments, and Yelp promises to remove any owner-written comments deemed disparaging, attacking, or pandering with some sort of incentive. The company has put up a guide that clarifies what businesses should and should not do with the new system.

Before business owners can use the comment feature, they must claim ownership of the business at, Stoppelman wrote.

The new feature is being introduced in the wake of some business owners resorting to libel lawsuits against former clients. In January, a San Francisco chiropractor filed a lawsuit against a patient who wrote a negative review of him on Yelp, but that suit was quickly settled.

A similar lawsuit soon followed in which a California dentist sued a couple, claiming libel over a negative review posted to Yelp's site. Yelp was named as a defendant in that case, but the plaintiff's attorney indicated at the time that the reviews site would likely be dismissed as a defendant because Web sites are protected against liability for content their users post.

An example of a business owner responding to a negative review on Yelp. Yelp