Google And Yelp Express “Complicated” Relationship In Conference Interview

There’s nothing that jaded and weary conference goers love more than to see some “red meat” conflict between panelists during a session. And that’s what TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld repeatedly tried to elicit in an on-stage interview of Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and Google’s John Hanke during the Social Currency CrunchUp event yesterday in Palo Alto California.

Schonfeld baited Stoppelman and Hanke a number of times with questions about the aborted Google acquisition of Yelp, Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ remark that “Search is not where it’s at [in mobile],” as well as Google’s crawling and use of Yelp’s content on Places (though the two no longer have a formal deal). He finally succeeded when Stoppelman took some of the bait and argued that  Google needs to be “smart” about “preserving the ecosystem” and balancing between its own properties (i.e., Places) and sending people to the “best place on the web for users to go,” for local content (Stoppelman was referring to Yelp of course).

Hanke countered, “We want people to find what they want. We’re going to present the best places from various sources.”

Beyond the somewhat manipulative interview strategy it was in fact a good example of state of “tension” that exists between Google and third party publishers today, as Google builds more and richer experiences that may divert or otherwise diminish traffic to publisher sites — especially in local (and mobile). The yellow pages publishers have been contending with this for some time now. And soon the travel verticals may experience something similar if Google succeeds in acquiring software company ITA.

There’s nothing especially new in this debate, which has been going on at the very least since January 2007 when Google stopped showing links to Mapquest and Yahoo Maps, or since the inception of Google News really. But it’s arguably intensifying as Google commands increasing mind-share across more domains.

More than disagreement, however, the Stoppelman-Hanke discussion reflected more general agreement about the state of local online. Both expressed the challenges of acquiring small business advertisers as well as the challenges those small businesses face with online advertising. Both discussed the explosive growth of mobile and its positive impact on the local market. And both expressed an implied or direct interest in succeeding the print yellow pages to some degree.

Stoppelman said, “Yellow pages is kind of boring; matching people with local businesses is what we want to do.” Hanke opined, “Google is not the yellow pages, the web is the yellow pages.” As an aside, this notion (“the internet is the yellow pages”) was first formally articulated in 2005 (.pdf) by Marty Himmelstein, an early engineer with Vicinity (later acquired by Microsoft) who worked on what has become known as “local search” in the 1990s.

Stoppelman and Hanke also repeated data publicly released in earlier announcements:

  • Yelp: 12 million reviews, 35 million uniques and 2.5 million uniques on Android and iPhone apps
  • Google: 4 million business have claimed Places (more than 2 million in the US)

Hanke discussed the recently announced Places API as a way to support developers and help them make money in local. He added that in the past Google provided tools to developers in the form of the Google Maps API but neglected to help them make money. “Startups didn’t make it [in local] because there was no solution to deliver advertising,” said Hanke. “Our focus has been on expanding the pool of local advertisers.”

He also mentioned some of the new ad units that Google has recently introduced, including Click to Call and Google’s expandable map ads  for mobile.

Stoppelman explained that Yelp now had “a few hundred people selling ads to local businesses,” but that it was not yet monetizing mobile — although it was looking at connecting deals/coupons and check-ins on Yelp’s mobile apps. Check-ins and badges have apparently been performing very well (“awesome”) for Yelp.

Finally Hanke offered what constitutes a good local directory or site for ranking purposes. “A good local site is one that adds rich information and doesn’t simply regurgitate the Acxiom local database,” he said.


About The Author

Greg Sterling
Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.