Yelp-ing Back

After a quick verification check, business owners now can sign up for their own Yelp "owner" accounts, which allow them to advertise promotions and--something businesses have requested of Yelp for years--the ability to respond to reviewers publicly. Previously business owners concerned about reviews of their establishments could only contact reviewers privately. The user-reviews Web site opened up the system in April following a growing perception of the site as anti-business for its lack of a system to address reviews that owners claimed were false and/or malicious.

The move also came on the heels of a few Yelp-related lawsuits that hit the news in January. First, a San Francisco chiropractor settled a defamation and false light suit he filed in 2008 against a former patient who wrote a negative Yelp review; days later a Bay Area dentist filed a similar suit that named a reviewer as well as Yelp itself. (Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman responded to the suit on Yelp's official blog by noting, "One thing we are sure of is that litigation isn't a very good substitute for customer service.")

Although Yelp is providing the functionality, it's asking business owners taking advantage of the new service to use common sense. Its guidelines for business owners say, "Responding to reviews is a great way to learn from and build goodwill with one of your most vocal customers. ... But contacting reviewers should be approached with care; internet messaging is a blunt tool and sometimes good intentions come across badly."

It also gives business owners the following friendly reminders:

1. Your reviewers are your paying customers

2.Your reviewers are human beings with (sometimes unpredictable) feelings and sensitivities

3.Your reviewers are vocal and opinionated (otherwise they would not be writing reviews!)

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