Yelp Reviewers File Suit Demanding Pay for Their Sloppy Copy

Here’s a twist on the “brand ambassador” and “crowdsourced content” trends: a group of hard-working Yelp “critics” has filed a class-action lawsuit demanding that the site pay them for writing so many reviews of the businesses they love and hate.

You may think this is “incredibly stupid” given the fact that the reviewers volunteered their time and (debatable) skills and that Yelp never promised to pay them. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

The argument here: while Yelp aggressively goes after companies that pay for reviews (and PR firms that post them), the company also encourages its most prolific members to post more often by offering “trinkets, badges, titles, praise, social promotion, free liquor, free food, and free promotional Yelp attire, such as red panties with ‘Make Me Yelp!’ stamped across its bottom.”

Ha ha. And Yelp can’t honestly say that it never pays contributors with money, either.

In its 2007 SEC filing, the company admitted to having compensated approximately 200,000 writers in total. At least some of those were “scouts” paid to post a bunch of reviews in order to establish Yelp’s presence in a new region.

The suit does raise an important, if obvious, point: the only reason Yelp stands out in a sea of review sites is that the company “spend[s] most of its energy attracting a small group of fanatic reviewers“. The people involved in the suit counted themselves among that group until Yelp cancelled their accounts for what they call “flimsy” reasons. If it sounds a bit like someone suing Reddit after being kicked off for trolling, that’s because it is. One longtime reviewer describes the community as “…kind of like a cult, but instead of Kool-Aid we drink alcohol.”

Indeed. But these reviews are extremely valuable, in the aggregate at least, for several parties: Yelp, the companies reviewed on the site, and the firms representing these companies.

The suit will go nowhere, but it’s an interesting look into the delicate dance between business, consumer and online community that will only grow more important in the years to come. Everyone in PR should watch carefully.

(Ed note: as someone who (barely) gets paid to write about restaurants, I find this story pretty funny. Of course these people aren’t Yelp employees and they have no legal standing to demand payment. But they do have the ultimate advantage, because my kind isn’t long for this revenue-free media world. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)