Websites that rely on users to review a given company recently have exploded in popularity. Sites such as or Google Places are generating huge traffic as people log on to see what their peers have to say before they try out that new steakhouse on the corner.

The other day I needed to get my eyebrows waxed, but wasn’t sure where to go in my neighborhood. I logged onto Yelp, typed in “eyebrow wax” and the name of my town, and 10 choices appeared. After seeing what users had written, I ended up driving to a tiny nail salon in a run-down strip mall because, even though the place only had two reviews, both were convincing, five-star raves.

As she was working on my eyebrows, the business owner asked me, in barely fluent English, how I had found her.

“On the Internet,” I said. “Yelp.”

“Ooohhh,” she smiled. “Yelp very, very good for me. Every day people say Yelp, but I don’t know, what is this?”

I explained how the site worked, went home and added a positive write-up for the salon — the first review I’ve ever written. The woman had done a wonderful job, and was much less expensive than surrounding competitors.

But Yelp, and sites like it, have a dark side as well, which is troubling considering the amount of power they’re beginning to wield. Currently, there’s a class-action lawsuit against the peer-to-peer giant stemming from accusations of what basically amounts to extortion. Yelp’s revenue comes from businesses that pay the site sponsorship dollars in exchange for appearing first on the list in a given search term.

However, many companies claim that if they chose not to become a sponsor, Yelp punishes them by highlighting their less favorable reviews first and filtering out some of the more positive write-ups. Recently, I was talking with a spa retailer who said Yelp had done exactly that to her. And even after numerous complaints, the problem wasn’t resolved.

But while these user-generated, review-based Websites may lack integrity, they also are gaining huge influence. And it’s imperative that pool and spa professionals understand how to use them to their advantage.

That’s why, in this issue of Pool & Spa News, you’ll find an article by a Web marketing expert explaining how to set up Google Places for your business. It’s a free and easy tool to generate positive word of mouth as well as traffic to your site — but be careful, because just one bad review can do real damage to your reputation.

Additionally, we are publishing a piece specifically on Yelp and what it means for businesses, especially retailers, in our industry.

In the past, if a consumer wanted to find virtually any type of product or service they’d ask someone they knew to recommend a company. Today, that same homeowner might also search out a group of strangers online for the information. Make sure those strangers are your fans, and rank you with five stars to prove it.