Friday, March 19, 2010
Yelp has run into its share of problems, with a third lawsuit emerging
, alleging that their advertising sales practices are akin to "extortion."
On top of this, the tone of comments about the company -- at least in some circles -- has turned nasty.
Yelp is popular, so they've got a big target on their forehead. Businesses (as we saw many years ago with Google) suddenly wake up to the opportunity; some see it as a place to spam; the publisher-slash-algorithm upholds editorial standards in a realm where, for whatever reasons, certain businesses feel a sense of entitlement. Is it because the business model is new? Businesses may have grumbled about yellow paged directories over the years, but there aren't lawsuits accusing listings salespeople of extortion rackets.
Remember: Google went through the same thing in the days following algorithmic changes that took aim at SEO practices like link farming. The little guys who were "put out of business" by Google's "unfair" algorithm changes made for compelling copy in wire stories, but a strong sense emerged in the wake of that: no one owes you a living built around free traffic, and building your whole business model around a free high Google ranking doesn't earn you much sympathy from anyone.
Plus, it was a zero-sum game to an extent. The companies who were featured more prominently in the algorithmic listings certainly didn't complain when the other guys dropped. Everyone can't be first. As a result, there will always be disappointment in ranked listings, just as there is after each Olympic medal event.
Of course, if there is something to spam, aggressive (gray-to-black-hat) SEO's will try to figure this out. This group wants to know how to "spam the Yelp review filter
" which really means raising the trust level of fake reviewers so automated flags aren't as likely to send reviews to editorial. That's similar to the tactical SEO mentality of "aging sites and domains" for future use as authority sites for link spam. This line of thinking is clearly of the variety of "you have eyes, but can you really see"? A local business *should not want* to astroturf Yelp with fake reviews. Think the logic through. To really move the needle, you'll need more than one fake account or to get a bunch of long term fake reviewers in your employ. This is the type of thing that eventually comes out in the wash, somehow, as sure as Tiger sexting about threesomes. And when it does, your business credibility is shot.
Because such dangerous lunatics are out there providing advice to businesses, review sites take a hard line, and disallow content and ratings as they see fit if the reviewers don't seem trustworthy. (Don't you wish Twitter took a more aggressive stance on banning fake accounts?) This gives the appearance to some businesses that their "great reviews" are being removed maliciously. I submit, it's part and parcel of weeding out spam. (See above, where someone openly writes about "how to spam that".)
In the end, the goal is pretty straightforward: editorial content that helps users find things, make better choices, and lead better lives. It also has a social component, though, so these review-sites-slash-social networks need to be a bit careful about how aggressive they are in banning people per se. Maybe some people trust other people and that's their business. Behind the scenes, for the purposes of the algorithm, the trustworthiness or publishability of certain reviews can be discounted or downgraded, but the process needs to be as transparent as feasible. (This analogy with Google might help: it can't actually "ban sites" from existence (just its index) or "tell sites not to link" or "tell you not to trust a site"... but it can quietly remove the "link juice" from links that its algorithms feel are fake or part of a scheme. That's their prerogative. Don't like it, ask another search engine for answers.)
Classified advertising (which is separate from content) has been a business model forever. No one in publishing set out to create an extortion racket, and if they did, the marketplace is free to question the validity and unbiased nature of the content, and to move onto a more reliable source. (Compare the "canned" lists of "recommended" restaurants that you might get in some publications, or some cab drivers. Better?) So it will always be a messy, fractured sector with give and take and back and forth going on.
To be sure, there is a certain amount of Schadenfreude mixed up in the Yelp case. By seeming to look down their noses (in concert with their investors and various hangers-on) at various other companies in the space that weren't quite as hip or youthful or well-funded (InsiderPages, Judy's Book, CitySearch), and by being photographed having insider, exclusive good times with their insider, exclusive circles of friends, Yelp gave fuel to the "haters" who would love to see them fail. Comments floating around the current news bring all the nastiness out of the woodwork.
But surely it's the haters who should look inside themselves for answers, rather than fabricating wrongdoing and posting snarky comments that say little more than that the sales team are "kids" with an "attitude". Suddenly, it is a crime to be young, employed, and in classified listings sales?
Businesses considering investing time and money in venues like Yelp should consider them dispassionately as media investments and avenues for reputation management. The former is similar to an Old Media classified ad buy; the latter, Web 2.0 and digital reputation awareness. Both are simply realities of our connected world.
Possibly, similar to when I long ago caught an AltaVista sales rep doing it
, there have been isolated incidents of salespeople tying editorial to ad buys, or implying a connection. The question is, does Yelp have a clear policy on this? And, what can you prove in isolated cases of businesses' positive reviews being suppressed (which is a normal practice to prevent "astroturfing" or self-reviewing)? Going forward, businesses who continue to use terms like "extortion" are going to come off as resentful and out of touch. Because: virtually no form of media that sells advertising has been immune from some claim that an ad buy is a bribe to get yourself better treated in the regular content (newspapers, TV, magazines, trade shows, and you name it). You want Yelp to fail because it sells advertising? Then you'll take on the entire media sales industry worldwide. That dog won't hunt.
Labels: lawsuit, yelp
Friday, December 18, 2009
No comment? How unlike me.
So in fact I think it means a lot. But how can I say much more than that when this blog is officially shutting down until after Christmas? And besides, the deal isn't official yet. 80% likely to happen, according to a source? Let's hope Techcrunch isn't stirring up trouble for nothing.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Miriam Warren, Director of Marketing with Yelp, is speaking on the cool mobile apps panel next week at SES Toronto, moderated by none other than Mitch Joel.
She was generous enough to answer my many questions about all things local and mobile. We've posted the results over at the Search Engine Watch blog.
If your iPhone literally "tells you where to go" (with the help of an uber-reviewer like "Andre D."), rest assured Miriam will be pleased.
Labels: mobile search, ses toronto, yelp
Friday, April 10, 2009
Good news for business owners wanting to manage their reputations openly and transparently in conversation with reviewers on Yelp. They'll be allowing businesses to respond publicly to reviewers.
Yelp, we're glad you're doing this. Over at HomeStars, that feature has been built into our platform pretty much since Day One. Many savvy business owners can turn a negative review into a positive dialogue, if they play their online-savvy cards right.
Labels: homestars, yelp
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Greg Sterling (via Matthew Ingram) provides full coverage of a brouhaha about a cafe in Oakland that stipulated "no Yelpers"! With Greg, of course I agree that online reviews are here to stay. Yet some business owners seem not to be able to deal with it.
In the field of online reviews I'm deeply involved with -- home renovations -- I don't know if any of you saw the 20/20 episode about the bad contractor in Maryland. He even went ballistic about the private online reviews shared among the membership of Angie's List. This contractor, who had defrauded a bunch of homeowners 16 years previously before being banned from doing business in a county, switched counties and began racking up complaints again. When customers began banding together and expressing their opinion, he became threatening, figuring that his bluster was going to turn out to be bigger than the whole phenomenon of consumer reviews. All that did was land him on national television, painted into a corner.
For businesses that want it all to go one way, there is hope. OurFaves.com, a Toronto-based Yelp-ish creation, encourages users to stick to the positive. At first I was sceptical. But you know what? It works. Most of what I want to post about local businesses is in fact positive, and the ones that go the extra mile, be it the drycleaner who undoes the problems the previous drycleaner foisted on me; be it the great unsung Persian restaurant at Richmond and Spadina, or 1,000 other great local spots... they need all the help they can get from customer advocates. OurFaves.com keeps it light and positive... and I admit, it is growing on me.
Labels: homestars, ourfaves, reviews, ugc, yelp
Friday, March 30, 2007
Yelp has been the most-watched company in the seemingly-narrow but fast-growing niche of user-generated content specifically with regard to bars, restaurants, and clubs, and "youth" oriented hotspots and retail. For them, it's beginning to expand to the point where they're a bit of a social community and a "go-to" site if you're looking for local review content.
Sure, there's a lot of room in this space for competition, but it isn't looking good for Yelp's competitors.
(Alexa is unscientific, I realize - but roughly accurate at the higher volumes. The bottom two sites are InsiderPages and Judy's Book. The blue breaking-out line is yelp. The top two are CitySearch (red) and SuperPages (cyan).)
It's fairly well known in insider circles that Yelp's startup competitors, InsiderPages and Judysbook, have struggled. This isn't the place to further examine why, but an easy and true answer is that there can only be so many winners in a space. As always, would-be destination sites are competing for valuable user attention and loyalty.
There is also a potential vulnerability in the bigger traditional (superpages) and nouveau (CitySearch) listings providers. Their support seems to be gradually eroding.
Meanwhile: new startup local search and review services are launching (such as ZipLocal, just launched in Canada). Established local portals are redesigning their interfaces and spending more dollars on marketing and ad sales. Huge media companies, I hear, are set to launch their own little Yelp-like experiments.
In this chaos, if Yelp can emerge as a clear leader, it makes a user's choice a lot easier, and makes it that much harder on Yelp's competition. But depending on your location you may not see Yelp as a clear leader yet.
The other variable is business models and longevity. Any number of scenarios can play out. Ambitious startups that are bleeding money, like InsiderPages, are likely to flame out. Traditional media companies running breakeven-or-better local portals aren't likely to go away, and they already have sales forces in place. Larger media companies launching new experiments *seem* to have staying power, but if there is zero adoption of their new ventures, then they'll just be folded up. And Yelp is no doubt burning cash too fast for its current monetization model, so it relies on a favorable buyout price as its "business model."
Another business model consideration is that sales effort alone can't sell these listings. If local business owners - confused about online to begin with - are being besieged by salespeople for local listings sites, it's only those with strong brands or those with "hot" brands that can really rely on business owners paying attention to their sales pitches.
Putting it all together and looking at the strong indicators in the user numbers, I'd conclude that Yelp will triumph amidst the chaos and will likely get its favorable buyout price.
Labels: insiderpages, judysbook, local search, yelp
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