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Yelpian astroturfers invade Blighty

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Web 2.0 poster child Yelp has transported its new-age city guide - and its sketchy online advertising model - across the Atlantic.

Early this morning, the San Francisco-based startup launched the UK incarnation of its self-consciously hip site, billed as a place where "real people" write "real reviews" of local businesses, including restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels.

Serving England, Scotland, and Wales, Yelp UK went live at 8am London time, and as usual, the company has already paid an unspecified number of people to seed the new site with reviews. Company spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose says that these paid-reviewers are no longer writing reviews, but that the site still identifies them as company "scouts."

"We're available across the UK, but our initial efforts are focused on London, and that's where we had a scouting program set up," Ichinose told us. "There scouting badges are still on the site so users can see who's who."

Ichinose did not say how many reviewers were paid or how much they were paid. She referred to them as "temporary contract workers."

According to the company, more 100,000 UK users visited Yelp's original US incarnation over the past month. "People have been clamoring for [a UK version of the site] for so long," Ichinose continued. "There was a rush to write reviews when we launched. There was a flood of ex-pats in places like San Francisco and New York who immediately began dropping in reviews."

The launch comes a day after CNET News reported that Yelp reviewer Christophor Norberg was recently sued for posting a less-than-favorable review of a San Francisco chiropractor. The tech press - and Norberg's lawyer - seem to believe this will somehow stem the flow of Yelpian Web 2.0rhea.

"If Christopher loses then anyone on Yelp who writes a negative review better be careful," Norberg's attorney told CNET. "This strikes at the heart of Yelp's business model and other Web sites that provide a bulletin board for people to state what they think of businesses in their community."

But Yelp doesn't see it that way. "Yelp was not named in the suit, though we did try to help mediate between the two parties," Ichinose told us. "So long as reviewers are being honest and truthful about their experiences, they'll be fine."

The bigger issue is Yelp's advertising model, constructed in a way that so often preys on the fears of local business owners.

As the San Francisco Chronicle famously pointed out, many local biz owners are concerned that their success is now controlled by perpetually peeved reviewers who don't know what they're talking about. And several San Francisco Bay Area businesses have told The Reg that Yelp sales reps have offered to "push bad reviews to the bottom" of their Yelp pages if they paid to advertise on the site.

Yelp says it does not shift negative reviews. But in multiple conversations with The Reg, it has yet to deny that the offer has been made.

Conversations with countless Bay Area restaurant and shop owners suggests that Yelp ad reps target businesses with negative reviews lingering at the top of their pages. Official site policy allows those who advertise to push one review of their choosing to the top of their pages.

Like that other Web 2.0 poster child, Wikipedia, Yelp has fostered a cult-like following among a certain segment of the web-going population. But whereas Wikipedia attracts social misfits, Yelp is magnet for the navel-gazing hip net set. And now the cult is cross-continental.

The UK digerati will be pleased. Many UK businesses will not. ®

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