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As We See It

Lending a Yelp-ing hand? Some think the review website should be paying you

While contributing content to review website Yelp is voluntary, a group of California Yelp reviewers recently filed a class action lawsuit claiming they deserve compensation for their work.

A colleague once asked me, a food writer, why some food writers tend to develop outsize egos, if there’s something about this gig that leads to an inflated sense of self-importance. Exactly what kind of power comes with evaluating a plate of pasta or an elaborate sushi roll, and is it corrosive? I don’t know the answer, but the egos don’t seem to be limited to professionals.

A group of California Yelp reviewers recently filed a class action lawsuit against the popular website claiming their reviews of restaurants and other businesses are integral to Yelp’s success, and therefore, they deserve compensation—even though all contributed content is clearly voluntary. The lawsuit states that Yelp’s practice of labeling participants as “reviewers,” “Yelpers” or “elites” is a form of reward to circumvent payment. It also compares Yelp to a cult and accuses the company of tinkering with reviews to please advertisers.

A statement from Yelp calls the lawsuit frivolous and claims it is “probably a result of the enforcement action we were required to take against some of the plaintiffs for improper conduct rather than based on any real merit.” The site’s terms of service page includes a clear explanation of how Yelp works and how it uses its reviewers’ content.

Local Yelpers agree the suit is ridiculous. “Yelp didn’t put a gun to their head. There was no job offer. It’s all voluntary,” says Nelson Queja, who works as a pastry chef in a casino bakery and considers Yelping a hobby. “To me, it’s absurd.” Queja says he uses the site to promote local businesses that he feels deserve recognition, and sometimes, through unofficial Yelp events and regular interaction at restaurants, he forges relationships with other local chefs.

But not all Yelpers work in the food biz like Queja, who has a more well-rounded understanding of the impact of his reviews. “Some reviewers want to be food critics, even though they know nothing about the industry,” he says. “There are cliques within the [Yelp] community, but I stay away from that, all the negative backlash. For me, it’s about promoting businesses in the local community.”

Getting paid is just one difference between Yelpers and (occasionally egotistical) food writers. Since it’s not their primary gig, Yelpers have less experience, spend less time researching and composing their reviews, and don’t have an editorial support system—or much support at all from the website that hosts their words. And yet with millions of viewers, Yelp reviews have an undeniable impact on the businesses they promote or criticize—with or without a company paycheck.

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Brock Radke has been working in media in Las Vegas for 15 years. Prior to being named associate editor, he ...

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