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Pays greens for Astroturf campaign

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Yelp - the review site that relies on people just like you and me to help readers find the hippest shops, bars and restaurants - has been paying marketers to write reviews and post comments, BusinessWeek reports.

Yelp, one of a half-dozen Web 2.0 outfits started by co-founders of PayPal, recently placed an ad in Atlanta seeking people interested in "writing witty and insightful reviews…getting your well-written friends (and their friends) to join Yelp…moderating talk boards, creating lists, sending Compliments…[and] spreading the word about Yelp to the broader community," according to the magazine. Other locations Yelp is hiring include Austin, Tex., San Diego and Washington.

The practice of "Astroturfing" - so called because well-coordinated, artificial campaigns are disguised as spontaneous, grass-roots events - has a long history in business and politics.

The Los Angeles Times in 2001 reported that Microsoft arranged to have hundreds of letters criticizing the US Justice Department's antitrust action against the software maker mailed to newspapers across the country. In some cases the screeds bore the signatures of dead people and non-existent addresses.

More recently, Jason Calcanis, then at Netscape, offered in his blog to pay $1,000 a month for people's "social bookmarking" rights And last month, according to an Adweek blog item, Sony was outed for creating a website that masqueraded as a private blog by a PlayStation Portable fan hoping to get a device for Christmas.

Yelp has done well establishing a vibrant community of reviewers in Northern California, where the company is based, and to a lesser extent, in Los Angeles. But as the company tries to get a toehold in newer locales, it is relying on paid assistants to post reviews and provide feedback in online forums.

Yelp executives told Business Week they instruct their employees to disclose the relationship and that the company has yet to receive complaints about the practice.

But the practice seems to strike some, including Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman, as unseemly. "Hiring professional back-patters crosses my line," the former general counsel of Epinions, a site that offers unbiased user reviews, writes in a blog entry. ®

Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman responds:

I find Eric Goldman's comment amusing given that epinions was originally built entirely around a paid review program (you might want to check in with epinions former CEO). A negligible number of reviews have been written by consultants and we only use these people for new markets and for short periods of time (2 months) when little-to-no community exists. Within the next 48 hours all consultants will have identifying badges, I want to make sure everyone understands we're not trying to trick anyone. This is a very simple program, no smoke and mirrors here.

Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp CEO

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