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