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Five-year-old Yelp has been something of a phenomenon, and is a preferred rating and review directory for millions of people online and mobile in 24 cities. In December, comScore pegged its traffic at 7 million visitors, up from 2.8 million a year before. It also has gathered a library of 5 million reviews, which are widely syndicated across many sites.

But success sometimes breeds discontent, and there has been a steady stream of complaints about the service, and its alleged habit of deleting or boosting reviews of businesses based on whether they buy advertising with the service. This is something  Yelp absolutely denies.

What makes it difficult to tell is that the reviews aren’t vetted. Two California doctors recently sued Yelp reviewers, claiming they had written false reviews. Yelp’s formula for determining which reviews appear on the site is also less than transparent. In some cases, its spam filter appears to have been overly vigilant. In other cases, it is unclear why reviews have been deleted.

A comprehensive article in today’s New York Times notes that Yelp feels it is not its job to “referee factual disputes between businesses and reviewers.” It also “won’t investigate reviews accused of being inaccurate or permit businesses to respond to reviews on the site.” Indeed, the company operates on the premise that greater accuracy will emerge from more reviews.

“Some of the confusion may come from the fact that advertisers, who pay $300 to $1,000 a month, are allowed to choose which review shows up at the top of their profile page and block ads from competitors,” notes the article. “For other businesses, the first two listings a reader sees could be an ad for a competitor and a one-star review.”

Yelp has, however, made some changes in the interest of helping businesses, including the addition of Yelp for Business Owners in April 2008. The feature allows businesses to edit their company profiles, post special offers and privately e-mail reviewers.

The Times also notes that Yelp is also stepping up its PR offensive. CEO Jeremy Stoppelman “is blogging more often about how Yelp works. He has also started a Twitter account to communicate with business owners and reviewers. Yelp is also planning conversations at chambers of commerce and local restaurant associations.”

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