How Yelp Crushed Citysearch & Yahoo Local … & Why Google Is Stealing Yelp’s Playbook

yelp-citysearch-yahooA fascinating study published last year compares the reviews and reviewers at three local business websites: Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo Local. And, in explaining how Yelp overtook the other two, it also hints — in my opinion — at how Google is trying to beat Yelp by using Yelp’s own playbook.

Citysearch and Yahoo Local were the two dominant websites for online business reviews early in the 2000s. Yelp has far surpassed both now and has the biggest review collection on the web; it reported passing 17 million reviews last month, and doubled its regular rate of reviews with about two million added just in the first quarter of this year.

Why has Yelp succeeded where the others have failed?

Zhongmin Wang, an economics professor at Northeastern University, looks at that question in his study, Anonymity, Social Image, and the Competition for Volunteers: A Case Study of the Online Market for Reviews (PDF download, 320k). He says both Citysearch and Yahoo Local made the same mistake:

[They] “made minimal attempts to attract reviewers. One can argue that they simply waited for anonymous reviewers to fall from cyberspace.”

On the other hand, Wang says,

Yelp enables and encourages reviewers to establish a social image or reputation. Yelp members can evaluate each other’s reviews, chat online, become friends, and meet with each other at offline social events. Each Yelp member has a public profile page that records her activities, including reviews written, number of useful, funny, and cool review votes received, Yelp friends made, and compliment letters displayed. Yelp also recognizes some qualified prolific reviewers as “elite” members.

The results of Yelp’s social focus are impressive. Have a look at this comparison of the growth of restaurant reviews on Yelp and Citysearch:

restaurant-reviews

Even though Citysearch had a 28-month head start and had collected more than 112,000 restaurant reviews by the time Yelp had its first restaurant review, Yelp passed Citysearch in April 2007 — just 30 months later. And the growth didn’t stop. According to the study, Yelp averaged 52,273 new restaurant reviews per month between May 2007 and March 2009; Citysearch averaged only 6,835.

Yelp Reviewers Are More Productive

It’s not just about overall review quantity. The study also asserts that Yelp’s focus on social and community has led to more productive individual reviewers. This chart is stunning:

review-productivity

According to the study, only 4.8% of Citysearch reviewers and 11.1% of Yahoo Local reviewers wrote 6+ reviews. Compare that to Yelp, where 65.8% of reviewers wrote 6+ reviews. Some other numbers:

Reviewers with one review (see far left above)

  • Citysearch: 71.2%
  • Yahoo Local: 56.4%
  • Yelp: 9.2%

Reviewers with 20+ reviews

  • Yelp: 27.1%
  • Yahoo Local: 1.9%
  • Citysearch: 0.6%

Not only does Yelp get more reviews than its predecessors, but it also has a much more loyal base of reviewers. The vast majority of people who left reviews on Citysearch and Yahoo Local only posted one or a couple reviews, while only a small fraction of Yelp users have posted just one review.

heart-yelp

Yelp & Positive Social Image

Wang explains the idea of reviewers wanting a “positive social image” by pointing out the various ways Yelp encourages its users to provide social context about each other — through friending, voting up their reviews and writing complimentary letters.

By writing a large number of high-quality reviews, a Yelp member can signal to fellow community members that she is “good”: intelligent, fair, knowledgeable, public- spirited, and even “cool.” As other members’ perceptions of a reviewer, review votes and compliment letters are direct measures of a Yelp member’s social image. We find that more prolific Yelp reviewers have more Yelp friends, receive more anonymous review votes per review, and display more compliment letters per review.

Yelp also rewards members with “elite” status, and Wang points out that about 44% of all reviews on Yelp during the study’s timeframe were written by elite members. Some members are also hired as “community manager,” and part of their job is to organize offline parties/events that help increase interest and loyalty in contributing to Yelp. There’s also a discussion forum on Yelp further adding to the site’s social aspects.

Citysearch and Yahoo Local took a different approach, Wang says:

The setup of Citysearch and Yahoo Local is similar to a charity fundraising event where everyone is welcomed to contribute, but no one will be recognized. … Yelp, however, strives to recognize its contributors, and so those who value social image would self select Yelp to write reviews.

Google Places Wants To Be Yelp

Google has accepted business reviews via Google Maps for years now, but the company never really spent much time promoting them, encouraging them, and even cleaning them up in the face of very obvious review spam. Google’s approach to online reviews was, for a long time, much like Citysearch and Yahoo Local. Google “waited for anonymous reviewers to fall from cyberspace” and offered very little in the way of social/community elements.

That was true until November 15, 2010.

On that day, Google launched Hotpot and began to lay the foundation for its social/community review effort. Google has since ditched the Hotpot name and made it part of Google Places, but its features and functionality remain an obvious attempt to replicate the social elements that have fueled Yelp’s success.

If It Looks Like Yelp & Acts Like Yelp…

Here are some of the many ways in which Google is developing Hotpot/Places features that mimic Yelp.

No Anonymity

When Hotpot launched, you couldn’t use it without first creating a profile. Yelp is the same way. Every reviewer has a profile and every profile has stats such as number of reviews and how ratings are distributed from one to five.

yelp-google-1

Note that Google has not gone as far as Yelp with these profile statistics; there’s a lot more info under my Yelp avatar.

Friends

When you first sign(ed) up for Hotpot, Google invited you to find friends and build out your own reviewer networks to see their ratings and recommendations while you search. Both Google and Yelp let you maintain a list of friends and show you their basic stats.

yelp-google-2a

Again, note that Google has not gone as far as Yelp in this area. Your Google friends list shows their name and the number of ratings and reviews they’ve shared. Yelp shows name, hometown, how many reviews they’ve shared, how many friends they have, if they’ve written any recent reviews and an indicator if they’re “elite” members.

Google and Yelp both help you expand your friend networks. Google suggests users algorithmically based on the places you’ve reviewed; Yelp lets you invite friend via email and will scan your email contacts to locate existing Yelp users.

Recommendations from Friends

Like Yelp, Google also shows recommendations/reviews from friends as you search for local businesses. I’d actually say that this is one area where Google has gone further than Yelp — the recommendations are identifiable by name and much easier to see in Google’s search results.

yelp-google-3

On-the-ground Community Building

As I mentioned earlier, Yelp has Community Managers in a variety of locations whose job is to work with and meet Yelp users, to interact with local business owners, to talk to the press and/or public relations people and to organize local Yelp events. In short, to promote Yelp and grow the Yelp community in their hometown.

Google has followed suit with a strong on-the-ground effort to promote Hotpot/Places. That began in Portland late last year. Google staffers visited local businesses to promote Hotpot and give out Google Places marketing kits; they organized local events with Hotpot users; they even … ahem … named Community Managers to promote Hotpot around town.

It’s almost a carbon-copy of Yelp’s offline community building blueprint, and Google’s done it in Austin, Las Vegas and other cities, too.

Is Google Succeeding By Copying Yelp?

That really depends how you define success. Quantity? Quality? Community? Something else?

In terms of sheer number of ratings/reviews, Google is making progress against Yelp — a fact that’s evidenced not only by the numbers themselves, but by the fact that Google is even willing to share numbers.

  • Yelp Review Count: As I mentioned above, Yelp said in April that it has 17 million total reviews and is adding them at a rate of two million per quarter (or about 700,000 per month).
  • Google Review Count: In March, Marissa Mayer told SXSW Interactive that Google had three million total ratings/reviews and was adding them at a pace of a million per month.

Google has a long way to go, but if those self-reported numbers are to be believed, Google is adding ratings/reviews at a faster clip than Yelp. Mike Blumenthal wrote this morning about Google’s growing rating/review corpus, which is due to the success of Hotpot.

One question going forward is: Are star ratings alone just as valuable as a written review? For some businesses, a star rating may be all that searchers need. (I’m thinking things like grocery stores, service stations, fast-food outlets and so forth.) But for many businesses — such as hotels, restaurants, doctors/dentists, lawyers, salons and many other service-based businesses — it seems that a full review will have a lot more value than a star rating alone.

Google emphasizes brief, tip-like reviews and will even let you rate a business without writing a single word about it. On Google, you can inflate the overall count with a single click of a button.

google-rating

Yelp, on the other hand, focuses on long-form reviews and doesn’t even allow users to post reviews via its mobile apps; they don’t believe the quality will be adequate if reviews are written on-the-go. Yelp demands its users take the time to craft something that’s (hopefully, but not always) intelligent and offers more value than the click of a star rating.

yelp-review

(Note, too, all the ways that the Yelp community can interact with a review and build what Wang’s study calls the reviewer’s “positive social image.”)

At the moment, it seems obvious to me that Yelp is winning on both quantity and quality of reviews/ratings. But many companies have had an advantage over Google and seen it disappear when Google’s competitive juices start to flow.

That’s clearly happening right now in the reviews space as Google chases Yelp (after reportedly failing to acquire it). And the irony is that Google is chasing Yelp by stealing ideas straight from Yelp’s own playbook.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Features: Analysis | Google: Maps & Local | Top News | Yelp

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • http://www.flemo.org Paul Fleming

    Very interesting insight. Another twist that one may point to is how well Yelp performs on Google searches indicating that someone did their homework there. After seeing first-hand the strange “algorithm” behavior for those who choose not to advertise on Yelp, I’ve developed a strong distain for them so I’m all for a big G takeover in this space. They definitely have their work cut out for them though.

  • http://parkgrades.com P.G.

    Very interesting metrics around the reviewers. No wonder Yelp’s reviews are better than CitySearch and its ilk. Yelp now has a huge head-start, but in my opinion, it’s still early in the game.

    I’m particularly encouraged to see that my own startup’s “reviews per reviewer” is in an even better place than Yelp.

  • http://www.canuckseo.com Jim Rudnick

    absolutely great piece here Matt…..love the side by side comparisons…..and the rationale behind the whole Yelp experience too!

    that said, the only issue I have is that (at least up here in canuckland) we can NOTmake a review on a mobile device…only write a draft that you’d then need to login off a desktop box to enable….

    that appears to be \counter\ to the thought that Yelp reviews ARE time-sensitive….and cuts all mobile reviewing ‘out’ — so we all Tweet instead….least up here….

    :-(

    Jim

  • Matt McGee

    Thx for the kind words, Jim. On mobile reviews — I mention that in the piece above. It’s not just Canada. Yelp doesn’t want anyone writing reviews on mobile devices.

  • http://www.intelligenx.com Zubair Talib

    Nice post – interesting insight indeed. Beyond the features and virtual recognition/environment that Yelp created, Yelp did an amazing job at starting / creating the local community of yelp reviewers in the real physical world – gatherings, parties, sponsoring outdoor events, Yelp Elite special events, etc. They created a culture of motivating reviewers rather than just a goal of getting reviews.

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com F.R.

    So the fact that Yelp actually paid people to write reviews and hired them via public job listings is missing from the academic study?

    That’s a huge part of how Yelp built their review numbers and in Raleigh, NC, where there was very little reviewing happening on its own, how Yelp built their numbers there.

    That also kept quality at a higher level than total volunteer sites.

    That’s a huge part of the story that’s missing here.

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com F.R.

    By the way, I’m not saying it’s bad that Yelp did that, just that it’s a key factor in their success:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/10/yelp_reviewers_paid/

  • http://www.dzoseo.com/blog D.S.

    It is amazing to me how many reviews both Yelp and Google are adding every quarter! That is impressive. Local SEO, and more importantly ORM (Online Reputation Management), are also becoming more vital for local companies. It’s exciting to see the pace these companies are growing and moving in the marketplace.

  • douglas ritter

    Gee, anyone remember Zagats?? They had a brilliant company going — before the web — and missed the whole online/social media aspect of reviewing. Another cautionary tale of a company that didn’t “get it”.

  • Ed Faber

    Yelp is still pretty much a west coast and urban phenom. In smaller communities like Cedar Rapids/Iowa City there is a small but very loyal base of active reviewers. Yelp would do well by employing part-time or even volunteer community managers. A little on the ground organization would go a long way towards spreading the gospel of Yelp. If they’re going to make the transition from cult following to a major mainstream presence (and keep Google at bay), Yelp needs to penetrate “middle” America in the B and C size markets. This is how Wal-Mart took over retail in this county.

  • MrKennedy

    Excellent article. Can’t wait to see where this Yelp brand goes. I see more “People love us on Yelp!” stickers on storefront than I do open signs. I find myself using Yelp for everything. 10 years ago I would have never had the urge to read reviews on the local grocery stores.

    Secondly; I’ve seen the argument that Yelp purposely manipulates the reviews of businesses that choose not to advertise. I find it a little conceited to think that a multi-million dollar business like Yelp would risk the integrity of their entire product over a mom and pop sandwich shop not buying their ad product.

  • Matt McGee

    Ed – you’d be surprised, I think, to see Yelp’s penetration in some smaller areas. I live in a small market, and Yelp has finally started catching on here in the last year or two. My favorite burger place just opened here within the last 6-8 months and it already has 25 reviews:

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/bobs-burger-and-brew-kennewick

    I’m also seeing Yelp review activity locally outside the main categories (food, hotel, etc.). It’s growing, at least in this area (and surely in others).

    F.R. – thx for the comments. I was unaware of the Scout program, so thx for the link. That said, have you read the actual study? It does say that they removed thousands of reviews that they could identify as having been written by Yelp employees. They don’t specifically say it’s from the Scout program — I think Yelp “ambassador” is what they say — but still, they ditched the contributions from 15 employees, each of whom had written 500+ reviews on Yelp.

    (They also removed the contributions of 17 Citysearch employees, each of whom also wrote 500+ reviews.)

  • Matt McGee

    One more thing, F.R. — see the screenshot up in the article with my list of friends on Yelp and Google Hotpot? The guy on top of the Google friend list has close to 900 ratings and reviews. That’s a Google employee. He’s the guy in charge of Hotpot.

    Mike Blumenthal also mentioned in one of his blog posts that he found Google employees using Hotpot for months before it was launched publicly — increasing Google’s overall ratings/review count.

    Like you said, it’s not right or wrong. But let’s agree that Yelp isn’t the only place where employees write reviews.

  • http://fastcall411.com Rich Rosen

    Hi Matt – Where do you see Facebook in this race?

  • http://www.jippidy.com/jippidy Julian

    Great article, Matt! Very thorough analysis! Regardless of whether the winner is Hotpot/Places or Yelp or some other player, user reviews are not the be-all and end-all, in my opinion. The problem with user-generated reviews is they are inherently biased by the personality and profile of the reviewer. It’s very hard for me to know whether or not the reviewer and I relate – what the reviewer thinks of as “a dump” I may consider “quaint”; a “dive” bar for him/her may be “rundown” to me. They’re just way too subjective by definition. Obviously, some value can be extracted from reviews by reading what the masses agree or disagree on – if a majority of the reviews say a restaurant is “overpriced”, it’s a good bet I’ll feel the same way too. But that leads to another issue I have with user reviews – you need a critical mass of reviews in order for there to be any real value add. But once you have too many reviews, the message gets lost in the noise. So a restaurant with 3-5 views, you don’t really learn much from; but on the opposite end of the spectrum, the hottest restaurant in town will have hundreds or thousands of views, how do you decide what to listen to?!

    In my opinion, the local game is still being figured out. There’s a holy grail of local business advertising that I don’t think has been nailed just yet. The user-generated reviews, the online video, the third-party writeups (urbandaddy, thrillist, etc.), the star ratings – i think these are all important pieces of a larger puzzle that has not been completely framed just yet.

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com Clyde Smith

    Matt, that probably addresses my concerns and, based on the numbers, the Ambassadors might be that researcher’s way of referring to Scouts even though we’re still identified as Scouts on Yelp.

    But I can’t believe you guys went in and took Flux Research, that was generated automatically byTwitter, which you use for logins, and turned it into F.R. That’s just incredibly weak.

    I’ve had a lot of respect for Search Engine Land but this makes me want to stay away. I don’t like associating with folks who pull such tool-ish maneuvers.

    Why can’t I have an identity especially if you find my comments worth leaving up and responding to?

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com Clyde Smith

    Note: as per your comment guidelines, my real name is Clyde Smith which you also removed from my earlier comment.

    By the way, I’ve never hidden behind anonymity online and, yes, I’d say all this to your face though it would probably not be so polite. Again, referencing your comment guidelines.

  • Matt McGee

    Thx Clyde. Yes, our comment policy asks for people to use real names. We are slammed with people using keywords and company names when leaving comments, and that doesn’t stimulate discussion. (People generally aren’t inclined to reply to someone who comments as “Topeka PPC Company.”) At the same time, we also allow Twitter login to stimulate discussion and it uses the name of the Twitter handle … which is often a company name. So it’s not a perfect situation, but we do the best we can to discourage keyword/company names and encourage discussion – including editing names when needed.

  • http://www.fluxresearch.com Clyde Smith

    Matt, thanks for responding. I understand the situation and I’m sorry I let it get to me.

    I’m not even pushing the Flux Research blog, my commercial interests are with a site related to dance which is off-topic here so I didn’t mention it. Flux Research is more of a personal identity thing at this point.

    It’s so frustrating how spammers have undermined the ability to communicate honestly in blog comments. I complimented a guy recently who I’ve followed for years but never had tried contacting before. He ignored my comment among the handful of comments on his blog and I realized it probably looked like all the junk spam comments I get on some of my blogs that say nice things just to get a link up. Which made me sad because he’s an icon to me in the music industry and that’s the area of my current freelance blogging.

    It makes me want to give up on trying to communicate in this format and that kind of sucks cause I’ve been blogging for almost 10 years now. It’s been a huge part of my life and now so much of it has been undermined and is going downhill.

    Hope you don’t mind this final rant. I appreciate what you guys do here. Honestly I do or I wouldn’t be commenting.

  • Matt McGee

    It is frustrating, Clyde — very frustrating. So bad that some of my favorite bloggers have disabled commenting altogether on their blogs. Can’t imagine we’d ever do that here, thankfully. At least I hope not. Thx again for weighing in.

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