If you think "best" and "of" are generic words, free to be used by anyone who wants to award a superlative, you're apparently angling for a fight with Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, publishers of New York's Village Voice newspaper among other papers.
This week, the media company announced that it was suing Yelp for using the phrase "best of" on its sites in 10 major cities. The Village Voice claims to hold the trademark for the "best of" format in those cities, and releases special editions of its paper every year announcing its picks for the best businesses in various categories in those cities. The Village Voice also released a "best of"-themed app for iOS in 2011.
The two publications -- can you call Yelp a publication? -- do have some similarities, inasmuch as they both match categories with individual restaurants and categories. But the Village Voice's categories are generally much more specific than those on yelp. In New York City, for example, Yelp lists things like "Best of Food" (Levain Bakery), "Best Of Restaurants" (Per Se), "Best of New American" (Eleven Madison Park) and "Best Italian" (Babbo) on its homepage. But the Village Voice advertises winners in categories like "Best Bone Marrow Use," "Best Brown-Bagging-A-Beer Spot" and "Best Market Stand."
The Village Voice is seeking an injunction against Yelp that would stop the website from using the "best of" format going forward, plus damages for its use of the mark over the past few years.
This isn't the first time the Village Voice has tried to protect its "best of" domain -- it sued Time Out New York for the same reason just a year ago.
For what it's worth, Yelpers don't have such great things to say about the Village Voice either. True, Andrew W. gave the paper a five-star review back in September 2007, writing, "Good articles. Good stories. Lets you know what's going on. By far are the sex ads in the back. You want a rub n' tug? Look no further than the VV."
But several others were much less flattering. In January, Yelper Fallopia T wrote, in a one-star review, "No, no, no. The Voice is a mere shadow of its former self. They were the paper that, at its founding, refused to "sell out;" flash forward to the present day, and it's a slick, commercial, and oddly inept weekly rag. "
Also on HuffPost:
Yelp Calls Lying "Personal Opinion"
A blog post on the SFWeekly website this week brought <a href="http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2011/09/yelp_lying_about_working_for_s.php" target="_hplink">a troubling Yelp-related incident</a> to light. A Yelper claimed, falsely, to be a writer for SFWeekly in a restaurant review. <em>SF Weekly</em>'s Food editor caught the lie and contacted the reviewer; she admitted that she actually wrote for <em>SF Weekly Voice</em>, and said she'd ask Yelp to change the review. But the website refused to amend the review -- a representative told SF Weekly that the lie in question was "personal opinion."
Yelp Is Known To Be An Outlet For Shilling
So many restaurateurs and publicists post glowing reviews of their own restaurants that Eater has a whole column dedicated to <a href="http://ny.eater.com/tags/adventures-in-shilling" target="_hplink">sniffing out shilly reviews</a>.
Yelpers Are Totally Anonymous
People do all sorts of weird things when they know they're unidentifiable -- which can throw off the average on sites like Yelp, which rely on the forthrightness and honesty of strangers.
Yelpers Can Rate Restaurants They Haven't Visited
Because of said anonymity, there's not even any guarantee that a Yelper has visited the restaurant they're reviewing. One infamous case of this sort of fraud took place in Graham Elliott's <a href="http://www.grahamwich.com/" target="_hplink">Grahamwich</a> restaurant in Chicago -- one Yelper gave it <a href="http://eater.com/archives/2010/09/01/graham-elliots-grahamwich-gets-negative-yelp-review.php" target="_hplink">a vicious one-star review before it even opened</a>.
Yelp Sorts Its Reviews In Mysterious Ways
Yelp has been <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/24/yelp-class-action-lawsuit/" target="_hplink">criticized in the past for the byzantine methods</a> it uses to sort reviews on a given restaurant's page. According to the site's FAQ, <blockquote>"Yelp's default sort order takes a number of factors into account and reflects our own attempt to present reviews in a meaningful order. For example, we'll favor reviews from your friends and the users you follow. The sort algorithm does not take into account whether the business is an advertiser or not."</blockquote> Thanks, Yelp. That clarifies literally nothing.
Yelp Bullies Restaurants
According to some reports, the "Yelp sort" has an insidious monetary element. Yelp salespeople have been known to<a href="http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/yelp-and-the-business-of-extortion-20/Content?oid=1176635" target="_hplink"> call restaurants offering to push bad reviews far down in the list</a>, if they'll agree to pay to advertise.
Yelp Doesn't Give Guidelines About Stars
There are no guidelines on Yelp for what different star ratings mean -- one person's five star experience could be a jaded gastronaut's three star. Yelp does release the distribution of stars actually given out -- and they're definitely slanted toward the positive.
Only A Tiny Minority Of Yelp Users Rate Restaurants
Many more people <a href="http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/12/why-yelp-works/#?wtoeid=growl1_r1_v5" target="_hplink">read Yelp than actually write reviews</a>. Most reviewers fall into two categories: people who review every restaurant they visit (see the next slide for more on the "Yelp Elite") and those who have an extreme reaction. People probably won't review a restaurant if they thought it was just OK -- but they are likely to review it if they have very good or very bad experiences, making it hard to trust any given review.
Restaurants Throw Special Parties For The "Yelp Elite"
If you're one of those people who writes a Yelp review of every nail salon and yakitori joint you visit, you can become part of the "<a href="http://www.yelp.com/elite" target="_hplink">Yelp Elite</a>." Once you're part of this creme-de-la-creme, you can get invited to <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43344769/ns/business-local_business/t/yelps-elite-epicurean-force-totally-free-labor/" target="_hplink">special "Elite-only" parties that restaurants</a> throw to attract good reviews. Sounds nice, right? It may be, for the "Yelp Elite" -- but it's bad for the general public, because these events often translate into glowing, misleading reviews for the party-throwing restaurants.