Yelp Critiques Heard and Heeded in D.C.

Phil Shannon, left, strings a court tennis racket for Yelp Elite members Dian Chen, Phi Chi Wong, Karman Lee, Deanna Jue and Evan McCormick. The group tried their hand at the ancient sport of court tennis in McLean.
Phil Shannon, left, strings a court tennis racket for Yelp Elite members Dian Chen, Phi Chi Wong, Karman Lee, Deanna Jue and Evan McCormick. The group tried their hand at the ancient sport of court tennis in McLean. (Photo: Kim Hart/The Washington Post)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Although the tiny, family-run Joy's Spa and Nail Salon in Adams Morgan may never get a critique in a newspaper, it's received 42 reviews on Yelp.com.

Reggie Tull, the owner's son and a massage therapist, said he noticed an increase in traffic with every new review posted on the recommendation site. He's also surprised by the time writers invest in each posting.

"It's not one little sentence -- these are really detailed" essays about the service, atmosphere and the prices, he said.

Some businesses say the influx of customer traffic is a testament to the site's growing influence in the area. There are other signs of its expanding role: The firm, based in San Francisco, yesterday announced its third round of venture capital funding, adding $15 million to the $16 million it had received since 2005. Yelp has launched in two dozen major cities and on Monday the three-year-old company will open a small office in New York to boost its presence on the East Coast.

Traffic to the site, in terms of unique monthly visitors, has nearly doubled over the past six months. Last month, the number of reviews on the site passed two million.

The site, which launched in the Washington area last year, lets users document what they love or hate about businesses and their communities -- similar to other recommendation sites such as Yahoo Answers and CitySearch.

Movie reviews and sites where users kvetch about or exalt auto mechanics have been around for years, but Yelp is a hybrid of local information and recommendations that also includes social-networking tools to help its users stay in touch and comment on other reviews. By allowing users to establish personal profiles and track other users, Yelp connects people with similar tastes.

Although it is not yet profitable, Yelp is expanding advertising sales to more cities. It also said it will use the infusion of cash to hire local employees to lead marketing efforts and to foster groups like the Yelp Elite. The group is made up of company-approved users who get together for birthday celebrations, to try a new restaurant or to hunt for quirky shops to review.

Locally, this group -- which must be approved based on criteria established by Yelp -- includes the likes of Kathleen McNeill, who has posted 283 reviews about everything from nail salons to dry cleaners and who has used Yelp recommendations to find an apartment.

"I have a hundred people at my disposal if I want to hang out on U Street," said McNeill, 23. "Whenever something new opens in the city, we just descend on it."

Like Joy's Spa, some businesses said they have started monitoring Yelp reviews and using them to gauge their performance.

At Busboys and Poets, a cafe on 14th Street in Northwest Washington, both good and bad reviews are taken seriously. Manager Michael Woods said he prints the reviews every couple of weeks and circulates copies to all employees.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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