‘Yelpers’ review local businesses

‘Yelpers’ review local businesses

Jeremy Stoppelman, right, and Russel Simmons at Yelp's San Francisco headquarters. Yelp was born out of Stoppelman's frustration, "I wanted to find a way to capture recommendations online, and that made me think word of mouth," he says.
By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
Jeremy Stoppelman, right, and Russel Simmons at Yelp’s San Francisco headquarters. Yelp was born out of Stoppelman’s frustration, "I wanted to find a way to capture recommendations online, and that made me think word of mouth," he says.

San Francisco home mover Pat Ryan says he’s picked up 200 jobs since a satisfied client first raved about his moving services on Yelp, an up-and-coming website where ordinary people write reviews about local businesses.

As more customers started leaving comments, it
changed the way he does business. "The reviews keep us on our toes,"
Ryan says. "Word of mouth is the lifeblood for a moving company."

Yelp
is bringing the concept of user-generated reviews, long popular in
travel and electronics, to local businesses. "Yelpers" who register at
the site weigh in on everything from nail salons to car washes. Other
sites have had a similar idea: Google Maps, Yahoo Local and IAC’s
Insider Pages and CitySearch marry local directories with reviews. But
Yelp took the concept and "turned into a social network, like MySpace,"
says Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.

Yelpers have written more than 1 million reviews since the site launched in 2004, with more than 500,000 posted in the past four months. "If you look at the reviews on Yahoo, Google or CitySearch, they get three or four posted per business, but Yelp gets like 20 to 50," Sterling says.

What is it? A website (www.yelp.com) with user-generated reviews of local businesses and communities.

How many reviews? More than 1 million have been posted by "Yelpers" since the company began almost three years ago, with 500,000 in the last 4 months.

Visitors: 1 million in May, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, up from 490,000 the previous May.

How the reviews break down:

Restaurants: 36%

Retail stores: 26%

Beauty and fitness: 8%

Arts and entertainment: 8%

Home and local services: 5%

Health and medical: 4%

Yelp’s audience grew 124% from May to May, according to market tracker Nielsen/NetRatings, with monthly visitors increasing to 1 million. It has a long way to go to catch up to industry leaders Google and Yahoo. Google Maps had 34.6 million visitors in May; Yahoo Local had 26.9 million.

Before launching, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman was working at a business incubator brainstorming ideas for the next great website, when he happened to go online to find recommendations for a good local doctor. He came up empty. Out of frustration, Yelp was born.

"I wanted to find a way to capture recommendations online, and that made me think word of mouth," says Stoppelman, 28.

He and co-founder Russel Simmons, 29, Yelp’s chief technical officer, are alums of payment service PayPal. The company has raised $15 million from a variety of venture capital firms. Stoppelman says he expects it to "take a few years" to turn profitable.

Yelp’s aim is to make money with advertising. Businesses are offered sponsorships to give them higher visibility in Yelp pages for around $200 a month.

Yelping across America

Yelp began as an e-mail recommendation service. Now, it has specific sites for nine major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Austin and Seattle. It also has Yellow Pages information for local businesses nationally.

Stoppelman says folks in places such as Omaha and Salt Lake City, where there isn’t a specific Yelp site, should be able to find what they’re looking for.

A search for restaurants in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., turned up a list of eateries along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, most with one or two reviews. A search for Ted Drewes Frozen Custard of St. Louis produced a listing, photos and seven reviews.

Anyone can view listings on Yelp, but folks are encouraged to register and post pictures, write reviews and invite friends.

"We don’t want people to come by with drive-by reviews, venting to get back at an establishment," says Stoppelman. "We’re a community that talks to one another."

But online write-ups can be a double-edged sword, says Steve Kravac, owner of Tiny’s K.O., a Los Angeles bar with 74 Yelper reviews. "You’ll get positive responses from people, but there will also be people who want to harangue you for no reason," he says.

One reviewer wrote that Tiny’s was a biker bar with overpriced drinks, "and that couldn’t be further from the truth," Kravac says. "We’re a punk rock bar, and our prices are the lowest on Hollywood Boulevard."

Yelp has tools in place for merchants to contact the reviewers, but Kravac didn’t bother.

Nathaniel Uy, managing partner of Mondo Gelato, a San Diego ice creamery, however, is so obsessive about reviews that when he received a 4-star rating (out of 5) from a customer, he wrote to her.

"I asked if there was anything we could do to improve," he says. "She’s since come back and turned into a loyal customer."

Multimedia critics

Nick Kokonas, managing partner of Chicago restaurant Alinea, says his customers are doing more than just posting reviews of his establishment, which opened 18 months ago.

"From the very first day, we’ve had three or four people taking pictures of our food, and posting them on sites like Yelp and Flickr," he says. "We attract passionate people who love food, art and culture, and they go online and want to tell people about what they’ve discovered. If we try to suppress it, it will look like we have something to hide."

Yelp encourages members of the "Yelp Elite" to gather at local parties and post on the "Weekly Yelp," a blog about local happenings.

There’s information on the site about everything from review etiquette to why and how some reviews get taken down. What you won’t find is the meaning of the name Yelp.

That got tossed into the mix during an early naming session, recalls Simmons, and instantly rejected. "It sounded like a dog being kicked," he says.

But with no better ideas, "Yelp" kept returning.

"It’s short, easy to say, and has turned into a verb," he says. "It sounds like, ‘The Yellow Pages needs help,’ and now, we love it."

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