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Yelp Critiques Heard and Heeded in D.C.

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.

"There have been some I felt were completely out of line, but others brought up issues I had no idea about," he said. He said he tries to reply to some of the reviewers, either to thank them for a positive review or to apologize for their poor experience.

There is no exact formula for earning the Yelp Elite title, and Yelp itself does not disclose how many qualify in the Washington area. Miriam Warren, who was hired by Yelp in April to organize outings for local Yelpers, said invitations are based on the quality of the reviews they write and their enthusiasm for trying new things. Warren, who has posted about 1,500 reviews on the site herself, said one requirement of being a member of the Yelp Elite is using a real name and photo when writing reviews, in order to give a greater sense of accountability to the community.

Like many other online forums, Yelp relies on other Yelpers to police and read one another's work carefully. So much so that it becomes a way of tracking their movement and social lives, McNeill said. "You know when two Yelpers start dating because they start yelping about the same places."

A hallmark of a good Yelp review often involves finding the unsung gem.

"I want to be the first to post a review, to kind of be a pacesetter," said Eleanor Lee, 30, who has posted 40 reviews, usually about restaurants and boutique clothing stores. She prides herself on commenting on every aspect of an experience -- the service, the prices, the decor, the location. "If a place has already gotten a lot of reviews, I tend to only review it if it really left an impression with me."

Obscurity is considered a virtue. One recent Sunday, for example, Jim Bathurst and Justin Siemaszko and about 20 other Yelpers took a stab at an ancient game called court tennis -- an art so rarified the Regency Sport & Health Club in McLean is home to one of only 10 such courts in the country.

With handmade balls, small rackets and a medieval looking court, the little-known game is something the Yelp Elite can highlight on the site.

But some newcomers find the Yelp community itself is already becoming established and tough to break into.

Following a Yelp happy hour gathering in Arlington last month, one poster identifying himself only as "Jeff W. of Oakton" wrote he was "expecting people to be wanting to meet each other and running around talking to strangers, but I didn't really see that." The online community, he said, "mostly seemed like . . . a few little cliques with very few people branching out from them."

Yelp hopes to reach more would-be fans by increasing staff and resources in East Coast cities, including Brooklyn and Miami.

Yelp co-founder and chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman, who grew up in Arlington and Great Falls, said Yelp didn't have an urgent need for money. He said the grim economic forecast played a role in his decision to raise more funding.

"It's a shaky world out there," he said, "so it would make sense to just do it rather than wait for a better environment."

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