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Why you shouldn't fear the fastest-growing consumer review site.

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Yelper-in-Chief Jeremy Stoppelman

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune Small Business) -- If your business serves consumers and hasn't been reviewed on Yelp, chances are it's only a matter of time.

The Web site, where anyone can post opinions about any local service in the U.S., is booming. Its number of monthly visitors (20 million) has more than doubled in the past year, as has the number of reviews (5 million). Most of those cover restaurants and stores, but categories such as doctors, lawyers and auto mechanics are coming up fast.

The exposure cuts both ways. Some 85% of reviews on the site are positive, awarding businesses at least three stars out of five. But that doesn't make the other 15% easier to bear. Says Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp's 30-year-old CEO and co-founder: "I've talked to business owners who have had one bad review in four pages of good ones, and it still stings."

Here's how to navigate this brave new world without Yelping in pain.

DO sign up for a free Yelp account. The company recently set up a "dashboard" where owners can see how many visitors are surfing their Yelp page and can post announcements about sales and specials.

DON'T feel pressured into becoming a Yelp "sponsor." The company gets the bulk of its revenue calling businesses and persuading them to advertise. For $300 to $1,000 a month, sponsors get promoted to the top of the page of results for a given search term. They also get to move their favorite review to the top of their page.

On sites such as Citysearch, there are often pages full of such results, but Yelp keeps them to a minimum. If your business is well reviewed, it will rise to the top without sponsorship.

DO e-mail customers who post reviews, good or bad. Yelpers are encouraged to update their reviews often. Stoppelman says he is considering letting businesses post public responses to their reviews on the site. If you want this feature, let Yelp know.

DON'T call your lawyer the instant you get an unfair review. Some attorneys have found profitable niches writing letters on behalf of their clients to Yelp, demanding that a review be removed for allegedly violating Yelp's terms of service. The irony is that Yelp deletes suspect reviews every day in response to user e-mails.

DO expect ratings to change over time. Some owners try to game the system by reviewing themselves or their competitors, so Yelp uses a proprietary algorithm to pull down dodgy reviews.

Stoppelman admits that he needs to explain this process to irate users, who are starting to post negative reviews of Yelp itself. It's not easy being Yelped - even when you own the company.  To top of page

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