Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Yelp: Don’t leave home without it

I just got back from my first fully Yelp-enabled vacation and it was the best ever. As the late, great Karl Malden said in his American Express pitch: Don’t leave home without it.

Although tens of millions of savvy Internet consumers know about Yelp, I find that an amazing number of broadcast and publishing pooh-bahs still haven’t heard of it. That’s too bad, because it means they not only are fated to eat an unnecessary number of bad meals but also because they can’t fully appreciate how modern consumers use the interactive media.

If you work in the media and haven’t taken the trouble at this late date to learn how the Internet functions as a complex social ecosystem (having a Facebook page and Twitter account are not enough), then a case could be made that this short dissertation won’t do much good. But everyone’s got to start somewhere and this is as good a place as any. So here’s my advice:

If you are now drawing or ever hope to draw a paycheck from a media company, then check out Yelp.Com so you can see a perfect example of the social behavior of the web in action.

For the uninitiated, Yelp is a website where visitors get and give information about restaurants, merchants and, increasingly, services ranging from physicians to dishwasher repairmen. Visitors are encouraged to write reviews for every establishment they visit and rate them with one to five stars. Yelp keeps a running average of stars and even conveniently tracks the star trend over the prior six months.

Founded in 2004 and now covering 28 locations, Yelp had some 28 million visitors in the last 30 days, according to Compete.Com. A start-up founded by two former PayPal executives, Yelp has been backed to date by at least $31 million in angel and venture funding.

The business model of the 200-employee company is to sell ads to restaurants and other merchants. Because the company is private, its financial performance is not disclosed. TechCrunch estimated in 2008 that Yelp generated less than $1 million in monthly sales. If so, the company would be quite a way from being profitable.

Yelp says it has published more than 7 million reviews from inception, each of them generated by individual users because there is no staff to write them. Thus, Yelp actually is attracting a vast amount of the sort of inexpensive and compelling user-generated content that many media companies have spent tons of money to try to acquire – but typically with scant success.

Apart from seeing some frighteningly atrocious spelling, I have been struck time and again over the years by the wit, thoroughness and fairness that most Yelpers put into their reviews. With good reason, too, because each author is identified by first name and last initial and a link back to all of her previous reviews.

Thus, each Yelper becomes a mini-brand with a reputation to uphold in the community. Because no one wants to look bad on Yelp, people for the most part seem to put considerable care into their contributions.

The high visibility accorded individual Yelpers not only encourages people to write more reviews but also is valuable for users trying to determine how much to credit a particular contributor’s opinion of a restaurant. You can look at the other places she has reviewed to see if you have eaten there and agree with her findings. If you find someone whose opinions you like, you might go so far as to visit some of the other places she has recommended.

There is, of course, a simple alterative to parsing the evaluations of individual reviewers: Especially when at least a couple dozen reviewers have visited a place before you, the star system is a pretty reliable guide. Thanks to a respectable volume of continuously updated data for most establishments, Yelp proves the value – and the rather amazing reliability – of crowdsourcing.

While Yelp demonstrates lots of best practices in leveraging the social behavior of the web, the best thing about it is that it sends you to terrific places you never would have known about.

On my recent trip to Maui, I didn’t make a move without checking Yelp. I used Yelp to select the complex where I rented our condo in Wailea, to book our Molokini snorkel cruise, to shop for the best fresh fish and to choose every restaurant we patronized.

Without Yelp, I would not have dared walk into Taqueria Cruz or the Koiso Sushi Bar, two superb dining spots in one of the funky malls that serve as hubs of commerce in the no shirt, no shoes, no problem beach town of Kihei.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, Yelp has eased my post-Maui stress syndrome by introducing me to Humphry Slocombe, an innovative ice cream place where the house specialty is Secret Breakfast, an addictive concoction featuring bourbon and corn flakes.

When I first heard about Secret Breakfast, it sounded weird to me, too. But I put my trust in my fellow Yelpers and they didn’t steer me wrong.


Anonymous Kurt Greenbaum said...

Well done! Thanks for the great post. Now, can you get our bosses to read it? One of the nice things about the site is the care they take in laying out guidelines for commenting -- both for the commenters and businesses that get commented on. Expectations are clear. And the software is good. And the reputations that you make reference to also help moderate the discussion. Good stuff.

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think maybe you've oversold this. I've seen similar web sites (Yahoo for example).

I visited Yelp Los Angeles and looked for my suburban city (Chino Hills) and found quite a lot of reviews BUT 25 pages (10 locations per page) into their site of Chino Hills locations and they are still showing everything at 4 or 5 stars.

And, they are listing businesses in "nearby" cities too when all I asked for was Chino Hills. One city, Yorba Linda is nearby when you look at a map, but it's on the other side of Chino Hills State Park and a hill large enough to be a mountain in most other states. The drive to get there is 20-30 minutes or more depending on traffic.

To top it off, they had several top rated businesses that are no longer in business! (and have been out of business for some time).

It has some potential but I don't think they're there yet.

Bruce Wood
Chino Hills, CA

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I use Yelp AND Tripadvisor when traveling or even looking for something nearby. Have found Tripadvisor to be eerily good on hotels. (You have to make sure the posters aren't cranks/competitors. I look for number of posts and tone as well as the general trend.) And while Yelp still has flaws, it has proven excellent on restaurants, especially in San Diego. No Zagats, but getting there.

Herb Greenberg
San Diego

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree. I used Yelp to quickly find restaurants during our recent trip to Colorado. Every one was a winner. Plus the iPhone Yelp app provided quick directions.

Related to Yelp is Flixster, a movie app that lets you quickly call up movie titles and times at nearby theaters. It likewise provides map directions.

6:27 PM  
Blogger daniela said...

Thanks for the excellent post. My question for you and your readers is, if you're launching a local web site, how can you create an interactive classified system that is even better than yelp? What is it missing?

For example, I'd like a system to rate reviewers, and have those that get good reviews to be highlighted. (That way rather than the newest review, you would be able to potentially read the most popular review.)

I agree that the first name, as well as a picture, make it a more reliable system. And I find it's been extremely helpful as well.

Chino Hills watch out. I predict it will take off where you are as well soon.

1:12 PM  

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