Can You Hear the Yelping Yet?

If you own a small business and haven’t heard about Yelp yet, you will – and you should probably start looking into the site now. This three-year-old social network seems to be the hottest thing in online reviews lately. In this article I’ll explain what it is and how it can help you.

Yelp was founded back in 2004 by twenty-something PayPal alumni Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons. While the two founders have earned a reputation as party boys, it was Stoppelman’s search for a doctor that gave Yelp its initial push. The somewhat convoluted original system was set up so that users asked for recommendations, and answers were posted to a central site. When the founders realized that many users were posting unsolicited reviews, they knew they needed to change course.

The current site has been described as reviewing everything from dive bars to funeral parlors – anything with a postal address. (Just for the record, we’re not in their system yet). Though Yelp’s roots are in San Francisco, the site lists dozens of cities with “Yelpers” and many reviewers are happily writing about places in towns and areas that the company isn’t officially covering yet.

Yelp’s growth in the last year has been pretty amazing. This June, more than 1.4 million people visited its site, an increase of 124 percent over June of last year, according to comScore. The site boasts more than million reviews. Granted, that’s a drop in the bucket when compared to CitySearch’s 15.7 million visitors this June, but that reflected an increase of only 15 percent over the previous year for the veteran review site. And Yahoo’s Local Guide may look unassailable with 29.5 million unique monthly visitors, but it was actually down 12 percent from the previous year.

There is no question that some small businesses have been seeing the effects of Yelp reviews. Cory Treffiletti, writing for Media Post Publications, mentioned that his allergist had recently signed up with Yelp and, as a result, saw 100 customer inquiries in just five days – nine times better than any previous advertising effort run by the office. Christopher Hall, owner of the Splitends hair salon, told Fortune that he was seeing a ton of business as a result of Yelp reviews. “Saturday I came in at 6:30 A.M., left at 8 P.M., and did 22 people. I woke up Sunday and my hands were all swollen,” he said in his interview with the publication. 

Yelp’s interface looks a little busy until you get used to it; it doesn’t take the minimalist approach of Google. That makes sense given its audience. Yelp’s users may be looking for something fun to do, but might not have decided whether they want to go to a movie, restaurant, night club, bar, or some other place. So the page itself is set up to give the user some ideas. Here’s a screen shot to show you what I mean:

 

There are two search boxes – one for the type of business, and one for the city it should be near. You can just enter the city, as I did here for Plantation; then hit the “Welcome” link at the top and you get this page. On the left you can click on reviews for restaurants, shopping, night life, and beauty and spas. What is highlighted seems to vary by city. In the center you see a list that lets you browse by category; next to each category link is a number that tells you how many reviews are in each category.

On the right, you see a box for “Fresh Lists.” Users can post their favorite lists here; the one shown here is titled “My Favorite places to get my steak on.” That’s one I can get behind! Speaking of users, just below that list box you’ll see “Today in Talk.” That’s the social networking element of the site. Users can ask questions and get answers. If you’re not finding a business reviewed that offers the services for which you’re looking (say you need someone who does really good dress alterations), you can “start conversations.” Here’s a screen shot of a page of conversations:

 

On the left, you’ll note that the conversations are divided into categories. You’ll also see that the time factor is fairly prominent; every thread lists not only the number of replies, but how recently replies were received for a particular thread, down to the hour. Not all forums do this, but it makes sense that for some queries, the time frame matters.

One of the popular shopping areas down here in South Florida is the Sawgrass Mills Mall. Not surprisingly, the mall has a pretty substantial entry in Yelp. Let me show you what I mean.

 

Now let’s look over this page. It has the number of stars the center has received, as well as the number of reviews. It has four and a half stars (out of a maximum of five) from a total of 11 reviews. The reviews themselves are shown below; I’ll get to them in a minute.

The page lists the category of the business being reviewed (“Shopping Centers”) and it can be edited. It also lists an address, phone number, web site, and whether it accepts credit cards. The business information can be edited. Photos can also be added; no one has bothered to do that for the mall yet. There are links that let users send this page to a friend, bookmark it, send it to a phone, write a review, or display a print version.

On the right you’ll see that there is a Google map to show where the mall is located. Nearby businesses are listed below the map. A third box below this list is headed “You Might Also Like…” and lists additional businesses with links to their Yelp pages.

But it’s the reviews that are the heart and soul of Yelp. They’re short and sweet; each reviewer is shown next to their review. You can see how they voted and what they said. And right away, you can tell that the reviewers are real people who have actually patronized the business: “We were vacationing in nearby Weston for a week, and went back here at least 3 times during our stay because everything is there!” says reviewer Jeannette S. In other words, Yelp has harnessed word-of-mouth advertising on a massive scale.

If you or your clients have a business with a postal address or any kind of brick-and-mortar presence, you can benefit from Yelp. Every review page has a link labeled “Is this your business? Get involved!” Click on the link and it takes you to this page, for example,  which explains what Yelp is and how to use it to grow your business.

Start by searching for your business on Yelp. It just might show up, whether or not you have any reviews yet. The first thing you want to do is make sure that the basic information about your business is correct. So check the address, business hours, etc. If it is correct, you can always upload some photos to show what you can offer your customers. If it is not correct, you will want to click on the “Edit Business Info” link. A form will pop up that lets you correct the information – and if you’re the owner of the business, click on the box that indicates this before submitting the form.

Once the basic information is correct, you can turn your attention to the list of “do’s and don’ts” that Yelp gives as advice to business owners. The don’t list is actually very short: don’t review your own business anonymously (likewise don’t have your friends review it anonymously); don’t panic when you see a negative review; and don’t lash out at negative reviewers.

The things that you should do emphasize the community’s environment of honesty and full disclosure. For example, Yelp suggests that you DO review your own business, while clearly stating that you are the business owner. Do register on Yelp as an individual and engage with the community. Use Yelp private messaging to thank reviewers for writing about your business – but wait 48 hours before responding to a negative review. You will probably need the time to cool off; it can help to try to put yourself in your customer’s mindset. You may come across as defensive if you aren’t careful.

Yelp has a sponsorship program. You can get a customized badge from Yelp to put on your web page that shows how many Yelp reviews you’ve received; visitors clicking on the badge will go directly to your Yelp page. The badge is free, and can add credibility to a business just trying to get its legs.

You might also want to consider paid sponsor packages. These vary in price depending on what you want. They could pay off nicely. Yelp has been partnering with both Google and Facebook lately. It has been ranking well in Google for certain local searches. And the review company just recently released its API, which opens things up for programmers to start using Yelp data in mash-ups. While some have said that Yelp’s restrictions on its API are too stringent, it is likely that we’ll see a large number of innovative applications and widgets using Yelp content in the months ahead.

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