Last week, popular reviews site Yelp announced that it had teamed up
with OpenTable to offer Yelp users the ability to book restaurant
reservations through OpenTable directly on the Yelp site.

A Yelp-OpenTable relationship is one that some have speculated about
for some time now, and given that 29% of the businesses reviewed on
Yelp are restaurants, the integration between the two services seems like a no-brainer.

According to TechCrunch, Yelp’s integration with OpenTable comes as part of OpenTable’s affiliate program. That’s an important point, as Yelp has had a somewhat difficult time translating the massive popularity of user reviews into massive profit. A big reason for that: as I’ve pointed out before, it’s tough to provide an open forum for individuals to voice their opinions about businesses while at the same time trying to build commercial relationships with those very same businesses.

Recently, Yelp has been the target of class action lawsuits alleging that Yelp has tried to ‘extort‘ business owners into purchasing advertising. With this as a backdrop, becoming an OpenTable affiliate seems like it might be a less troublesome way to monetize without trying to deal with restaurant owners directly. That said, the relationship with OpenTable raises a couple of interesting issues:

  • As an OpenTable affiliate, Yelp has a clear financial stake in encouraging its users to book reservations through OpenTable. Logically, Yelp users are going to be less inclined to book with restaurants that have negative reviews and while I’m certainly not suggesting that Yelp will censor out negative reviews left for restaurants that work with OpenTable, it seems that Yelp’s critics could raise the question of potential conflict.
  • It is not clear whether restaurants working with OpenTable are informed that a reservation was made through Yelp. If this is the case or ever becomes the case, some OpenTable restaurants would ostensibly have an advantage over non-OpenTable restaurants in that they could go well beyond the call of duty in serving Yelp users in order to promote positive reviews and avoid bad ones. Obviously, that might be a smart move for the restaurant but it would potentially result in reviews on Yelp that are not representative of the typical dining experience.

Needless to say, potential and perceived conflicts (and hypotheticals) don’t necessarily translate into real-world problems and personally, I think the Yelp-OpenTable relationship is a sensible one. But the broader battle between generating revenue and maintaining credibility is always going to be a tough one for user reviews sites like Yelp. There’s a fine line to walk, and given the affiliate relationship, Yelp and OpenTable would be wise to avoid too much PDA when dining in public.

Photo credit: madmolecule via Flickr.