While user rating and comments in buying guides and directory listings may seem all sparkly new and very Web 2.0, the concept has been around for a very long time. Indeed, I was involved in a research project with a major yellow pages publisher way back in 1990 to assess whether or not to add ratings information to restaurant listings (with the idea other categories might benefit as well).

The core issue back then was the same as it is now: can objective ratings co-exist with paid advertising?

Perhaps not surprisingly, restaurateur response to ratings played out roughly as follows:

  • 5 star restaurants: "great idea; let's do it"
  • 4 star restaurants: "intriguing idea"
  • 3 star restaurants: "as long as you don't charge extra for it"
  • 2 star restaurants: "are you crazy?"
  • 1 star restaurants: "Your Pepsi is $2; pay on the way out."

The problem is a fundamental one: advertisers don't want to pay to tell the world ambivalent or negative information about themselves. It's why restaurants don't post negative reviews in their windows.

We tried clever variations. What if we only printed positive reviews? Advertisers shot this down quickly as well. If only good reviews were printed, then those restaurants without reviews must be bad. The ditty "if it's pay to play, then I decide what to say" pretty well sums up the long-standing dynamic.

That's why I was so surprised to see a truly unusual new approach to this age-old coming from user review site Yelp.com. According to the New York Times, while Yelp won't censor or remove negative comments its users make about its advertisers, Yelp allows advertisers to sort positive listings about their business first. The thinking, of course, is that user reviews are much like search results pages: nobody gets past the first few.

Has Yelp artfully cracked the advertising-reviews conundrum? At first I believed they had. Then I started thinking that this was just a cute ploy that advertisers would quickly see through. Then I thought that allowing advertisers to game the system was a little slippery. Finally, my view shifted again: isn't Yelp making a cynical statement about its own value proposition: if nobody is really reading all the reviews it posts, what's the point? Where's the value?

Having thought about this until my head hurt, I thought I'd toss this back to my readers. Breakthrough or not?