At Yelp, Views You Can Use Close to Home

Chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman's Yelp offers a new use for social networking.
Chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman's Yelp offers a new use for social networking. (By Jeff Carlick -- Bloomberg)

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By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kevin Lee has never been a fan of riding the bus to work. But on the advice of a co-worker, he tried the Fairfax Connector Bus to get from his Reston home to a job site in Tysons Corner.

He loved everything about it: the convenience, the comfort and the price -- and couldn't wait to log on the Internet and Yelp about it.

To "Yelp" about an experience -- whether it's shopping, dining or finding a honest mechanic -- is to post a review on Yelp.com, which launched its Washington site in March but has created enough of a following in other cities that users have started using the site's name as a verb.

Online reviews are hardly new. Web surfers have been able to learn about movies, restaurants and hotels online for years. Other Web services have been built around reviews and advice from regular folks: Yahoo, for example, launched Yahoo Answers to tap into the expertise of the Internet. And Angie's List is a site where paying members can access community recommendations for contractors, mechanics and other service-oriented businesses.

Yelp, which has sites for about two-dozen metropolitan areas across the country, is different in that the review itself is less about the business and more about the reviewer. The site is a collage of personal blogs about local topics, such as whether a park is dog-friendly or what people think of a new radio station format. More so than newspaper reviews or with other review sites, Yelp tries to mimic social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook so its members can riff on the goings-on in their neighborhoods.

On the downside, not all users post accurate information, and new competition could always diminish participation on the site. Yelp is largely self-policing and relies mostly on the goodwill of its users to post honest entries.

Every user has a "canvas," or a profile page with a photo. The canvas has links to all of the member's posted reviews, as well as personal tidbits. There's no format for the reviews. Members review everything from restaurants and hotels to rides on the Metro or new radio stations. And their entries can be short or ramble on.

"You can tell if someone is a real reviewer by looking at their profiles or other reviews they've done," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland, Calif. Lee's Yelp profile, for example, includes his reviews, photos of him, a list of his Yelp friends and ratings of his reviews from Yelp visitors -- tools to help users gauge his credibility.

"This was something I could share with the rest of the community," Lee, 25, said of his Fairfax bus review. "If some people took advantage of it, if it made their lives and commutes easier, then it was something" that could be beneficial.

Yelp co-founder and chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman said the site builds on life's encounters -- a dog park, an apartment building, a bank branch or local farmer's market. Using the social-networking model, Yelp encourages users to build a network of friends who are encouraged to write reviews of their own -- and spread the word about the site.

"This is about you and your opinions," he said. "Yelp is . . . for people who are passionate about their local scene. It's very personal."

The site started when Stoppelman moved to the San Francisco area a few years ago and needed a doctor. Not finding what he was looking for on the Web, he decided to pose questions online -- "Anyone know of a reputable allergist in the Nob Hill neighborhood?" -- with hopes that others would chime in with answers.

The question-and-answer concept didn't take off on the original site -- but Stoppelman noticed a buzz of activity in an area where users could submit reviews.

Yelp, which launched with a San Francisco site in 2004, is still largely operating on $16 million in venture capital funds it has raised, though it has started selling advertisements on its three oldest sites -- San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Stoppelman expects to launch advertising networks in other cities soon and hopes to be profitable by the end of the year.

Before launching an ad program, "we really have to build credibility in a market first," Stoppelman said.

Ad placement is based on reputation, promoting businesses that have received strong recommendations on the site, he said.

"It's an incredibly powerful way of keeping us honest," Stoppelman said. "How silly would it be to promote Bob's Towing if it has two stars on Yelp and everyone is talking about how they damage cars?"


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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