Should You Be Paid for Your Online Reviews?

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 13, 2014

Photo credit: caosycosmos/Tumblr

Since the early days of LiveJournal and Angelfire, the internet has been a place to freely spout one’s opinions. And for many of those who love to star this or thumbs-down that, financial gain seems to hardly be a motivating factor. (Beanie Babies reviews are all about passion, OK?!)

But in a new class-action lawsuit, a group of Yelp reviewers say that they deserve to be monetarily compensated for their work. Apparently Yelp pays a few individuals the suit calls “scouts” (Yelp calls them “marketing assistants”), who write reviews for geographic areas that lack a critical mass of Yelp reviewers. The lawsuit claims that these scouts do the “exact same work" as some ordinary Yelp reviewers, but receive cold, hard cash in exchange. "This is a lawsuit merely to provide the wages to all writers of Yelp and not just the ones which Yelp, Inc. chooses to pay in wages," the complaint reads.

Yelp, Amazon, and other reader-centric reviewing sites have arguably contributed to some newspapers shutting down their dining sections and firing food critics. (The commonly uttered refrain seems to be: Why pay someone for something someone else will do for free?) If successful, the Yelp suit could send ripples through the entire food media world.

This lawsuit may sound familiar: Lead plaintiff Lily Jeung, an elite Yelp reviewer, was previously part of a group that brought a similar action against Yelp, which was dismissed earlier this year. In that suit, Jeung argued that the review site’s success relies on the “domination and control over non-wage writers.”

The suit also claimed that Yelp directed Jeung and others to write more reviews in order to keep their “elite” status, which is bestowed on users who produce a high volume of well-written reviews (and NOT awful ones like this).

"I had about 5,000 ‘friends’ on Yelp [and] I had written well over a thousand reviews," Jeung told a Los Angeles NBC affiliate late last year. But no more: Yelp deleted her profile and all her reviews, she said.

“If you wrote a positive review for a business that was on the list of businesses they were trying to get to advertise they would filter the review,” she explained. “If you were to write a negative review about a business that was giving them a lot of money—they would delete your account as well.”

When her account was deleted, Jeung said Yelp sent her an email claiming that businesses paid her for positive reviews. Jeung vehemently denies the accusation.

It’s a lot to process. On one hand, it seems unfair that Yelp benefits from its so-called “Elite Squad,” who, according to its own site, “act as city ambassadors, and are the true heart of the Yelp community.” But no one is forcing Yelp reviewers to write reviews. And Yelp is a private company: Shouldn’t they be allowed to pay who they want?

What do you think?