I spent some time today in the San Francisco offices of Yelp getting an update on their progress and strategy. Here's what I posted about the site (one of several posts) last fall:
Yelp, a San Francisco Bay Area local community site with directory listings — or local directory site with community and social networking — got some VC money last week. The site, which has national aspirations, exists in an already crowded field. For that reason, when I first encountered Yelp early on, I dismissed it as an "also ran." But I must admit the site has traction in San Francisco and, after a redesign a few months ago, looks very good. It's managed to grow by word of mouth and seems to have a very engaged user base.
Yelp has not made a lot of PR noise and has quietly built a site that arguably offers more content depth (local reviews) than most of its competitors. Its weakness compared to sites like Yahoo Local and Citysearch is that it doesn't have the sort/refinement capabilities that they do. But its strength is that it has fostered a very engaged community and has now hit an inflection point that has its own momentum. (Yelp is trying to replicate this "formula" as the site rolls out nationally.)
Compare "Salons, San Francisco":
All of these sites deliver a good user experience and each has strengths and weaknesses. However, in most cases the volume of reviews is larger on the Yelp site. It’s not uncommon to see businesses with 30 and 40 reviews. This may not hold across all categories. But it reflects the engagement of the user-community. And the site is younger than most of its rivals.
Yelp sells calls and page views (via phone) and they told me that they're having considerable success when they show local businesses their reviews. This is also what InsiderPages has reported: once businesses see themselves reviewed the sale is relatively easy. Basic data on the site come from Acxiom but users provide additional information.
There are two distinct sides to Yelp (as with other, similar sites): readers and writers. Readers are those who use the site but generally don't participate and writers are those who are engaged to varying degrees in writing reviews. Writer-users have profiles (like other social networking sites). For example, here’s the profile of Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. From this view, the site looks much more like a social network or blog. From the reader side it appears to be much more like Citysearch, a local directory with reviews.
When I discussed with Yelp today how to categorize or classify the site, the term that came to my mind was "directed blogging" — a phrase they had already thought of and been using internally. Flat as that might seem as a marketing description, that's what the site essentially is. With its recent redesigns, Judysbook is now doing something very similar.
Yelp was a somewhat late entrant in what seemed by Internet standards to be a mature and certainly competitive market, the "cityguide" or IYP space. Yelp is neither and has elements of both. Although it's intangible, the site has a "warmer" and more "friendly" quality than many of its rivals, which seem by comparison to be more “antiseptic.”
What is impressive is that the site seems to have managed to "crack the code" on engaging users and creating a sense of community; so much so that there are weekly “Yelp parties” in cities across the country, especially the San Francisco Bay Area. Clearly there’s a community psychology at work here, which successfully taps a desire to connect with others and for self-expression and recognition. That phenomenon is worthy of a great deal more investigation and discussion at some later point.