Any semi-regular Yelper knows that the reviews are not in true chronological order, listed by the number of stars, or even ranked by the (anonymous) reviewer’s usefulness on the site overall. They’re kind of a poorly-punctuated mystery.

Maybe it’s because Yelp messes with them to enrich itself. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that, hypothetically, if Yelp were to dole out favorable reviews to businesses that pay for them, that would be perfectly legal.

The judges ruled that Yelp’s right to charge for advertising is not extortionary but, “at most, hard bargaining,” and dismissed a class-action suit brought by hundreds of small business owners who claimed Yelp’s sales reps explicitly told them good ratings go hand in hand with ads. The company denies this, vociferously insisting that their algorithm can’t tell advertisers and non-advertisers apart, but they’ve been dogged for years by accusations from unhappy business owners who notice those five-star ratings mysteriously vanishing once they quit forking over cash, and reappearing once they buy another ad contract.

In a sense, Yelp almost has to do a little manipulating, because Yelp reviewers can be vengeful, self-absorbed dullards. Who hasn’t encountered, “I’ve never eaten here but I hate this place because hipsters,” or “I loved this place! But parking’s hard. One star.”? If those proliferate, people might stop paying attention altogether.

But Yelp’s power and influence is vast, especially in high-rent SF. It operates almost like a credit bureau, those opaque financial agencies with the power to wreck your life even though the information they have on you is frequently outdated or wrong. And now Yelp effectively has a judicial blessing to monkey around with it. Next time you read that someone’s meal was too salty, take it with an extra grain of salt.

[Via: SF Chronicle; photo by Steven & Courtney Johns via Flickr]