Yelp: Digitizing the Yellow Pages
Yelp.com was established in October of 2004, built on the heels of the dot.com bubble. Its founders Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman, two former PayPal engineers, came up with the idea after Jeremy became sick with the flu. Needing a doctor to visit, Jeremy prodded around the internet to find a local recommendation (Canavan 2014). To his surprise, there was little to no information about the quality of local doctors, and the idea of developing “Yocal” struck him. Oh yeah, “Yocal” was the original name Jeremy and Russel wanted as it was a mix of “Yellow Pages” and “Local”. Thankfully that domain site name was taken, and the owner would not sell, so they settled on their second option “Yelp”. For the full story of Yelp’s name and beginnings as told by Jeremy himself check out his interview on YouTube below.
Over its 17 year lifespan, Yelp has grown and acquired several lines of business. It all began in 2004 with what was then a forum style Q&A. Shortly thereafter the Q&A style was replaced with their famous crowd-sourced general reviews. Other acquisitions included a restaurant reservation and waitlist platform, a food delivery service company which was later spun out to GrubHub, and several other platforms to support their home services Yelp business’ like “Nearby Jobs” (Yelp – Company – Fast Facts (yelp-press.com)). For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on what they are most recognized for, their original crowd-sourced review platform, primarily in the context of restaurants. If you are interested in a full breakdown of Yelp’s history, check out this site which lays out a great timeline.
Before we jump into the discussion of Yelp, I would like to outline the process which was utilized to discuss the platform, “The Circuit of Culture”. The concept theorizes that to understand any site/text/practice/object you must view it from many angles. The circuit is a simplified process of this theory. Thus, we will view the Yelp platform from the following angles Identity, Consumption, Production, Regulation, and Representation. Below is a brief explainer on each and how they all connect in unique ways.
Identity is the makeup of the people and things that make up the platform. Anyone who would be involved/related and anyone who would most certainly not be involved/related. It all concerns how it is used and what its role is for the consumers. In Yelp’s case, this is represented by the demographic makeup of its Yelpers, as well as the role Yelp plays in providing information. The makeup of its uses is very closely related to its consumption, and its role as a platform is very closely related to its representation.
Consumption concerns everything related to the use of the platform personally. Who uses it? How do they use it? Does it cost this person anything? How do they reach the platform? In Yelp’s case, it is incredibly closely tied with production.
Production concerns anything that is put out to the public, oftentimes for financial gain. Where does the story/information/product come from? In the case of Yelp’s those who consume are also those who produce and do so unpaid for the good of the community while Yelp reaps the financial benefit.
Regulation concerns any and all rules, paywalls, and barriers to the platform. That can include speech regulation (hate speech), subscriptions, and other legal enforcement. For Yelp, which is a free platform for both users and businesses alike, its regulation comes in the form of review fraud and attacks. Regulation directly affects the production of Yelp’s content.
Representation is everything that the platform outwardly projects about itself. For most products, this primarily includes the design of the platform and what it signifies. Again, I feel this closely aligns with Identity in Yelp’s case. The ranking Identity discussed will be visible within their representation as well. Similarly, Yelp responds to its consumption with its representation, designing a platform that satisfies consumers’ craving for convenient information.
Click on any heading to jump back to its respective breakdown, or alternatively the last word of each explanation to jump to that section.
Yelp, at its core, is a platform for information, which will be discussed thoroughly in the consumption aspect of our circuit. Their identity is presenting the best local information possible. To do this Yelp ranks, everything. This role it plays goes hand-in-hand with its representation of the platform publicly.
Shown above is their ranking logo as they collect submissions for top places to eat around the country. People love rankings, and Yelp intends to give it to them. Linked here, are the results for the top restaurants in Baltimore. P.S. I have been to “The Food Market” twice now and it lives up to its billing as the top-ranked restaurant in Baltimore. Similarly, if you search for a specific type of food, such as pizza, Yelp ranks the best places that are relevant to what you are seeking within your area and displays them in both list and map format. Below is an example.
It is evident that Yelp’s outward identity is usually associated with two things, streamlined information, and ranking the most relevant results. However, what is the identity makeup of people that utilize the platform? Fortunately, Yelp publishes this demographic makeup illustrated below.
Somewhat to my surprise, we can see that Yelp has an evenly distributed age range but tends to favor the educated and wealthy. It would seem reasonable to conclude that those with higher incomes are more likely to spend on restaurants, local services for home and auto repair, and shopping which make up over half of the reviews on Yelp.
Now that the identity of the platform has clearly been defined, how do people consume the content? In Yelp’s case, production of that same content goes hand-in-hand as “Yelpers” do both. A study done in 2012, by Amy Hicks and her colleagues, investigated Yelp’s “uses and gratifications.” Unsurprisingly, it found that people who used Yelp were predominantly “information-seekers.” Yelp clearly understands this, as their representation is that of a simple search bar looking to make information quickly accessible. Generally, the study found two identities of Yelpers, those who only consumed, and those both consumed and produced. The first group, only consumers, were individuals that only cared about information. They were not found to be positively correlated with other variables tested in the study including, entertainment, time passing activity, or interpersonal utility (helping others). For them, Yelp was consumed similarly to that of a google search you input some information and it spits out answers. The second group also comprised of people seeking information, but those same people also produced reviews (information). This group of Yelpers was found to feel more “connected to the site”, visited more frequently, and found the site “entertaining” and interesting to “pass-time”. Evidently, there are two levels of consumption and production, those who casually read, and those who frequently contributed by writing, reading, visiting, and verifying information.
One other relevant factor of production is that of a business. Yelp allows any business to claim a free “listing” on their side. There is no other form of regulation for a business. Utilizing their listing, a business can promote/publish several things. At its most basic level they can publish restaurant or service days/hours, pictures of the product, policies, COVID-19 and related health information, vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free options, and a commonly asked questions and answers section. From there, owners can layer on other opportunities such as Yelp’s ad platforms which place their business atop the search results, which can be seen in the example within the “Identity” section. (Yelp for Business | Grow your business with Yelp)
A final point on consumption and production is that Yelp is not immune to the rest of the internet’s nature, sarcasm and humor. Below are a few examples of Yelp reviews you may find enjoyable.
Since Yelp, relies on unpaid crowd-sourced labor for most of its productions these next two categories, regulation and representation, are where most of their capital is allocated. Yelp was an early pioneer in the online review vertical. This does not make them immune to issues that have become prevalent within online reviews on all other kinds of platforms. In 2016 Michael Luca and Georgios Zervas conducted a study on Yelp reviews concerning fraud, reputation, and competition of restaurants. They had a few key findings. The first is that about 16% of yelp reviews are flagged and filtered internally for suspicious ratings. These tended to be the most extreme reviews, both in favor and against restaurants. Their second finding was that restaurants with a weak reputation (rating) or small sample size of reviews, were more likely to commit review fraud or pay for fake reviews to boost their reputation. A final important finding was that restaurants that faced increased competition were more likely to be the victim of unfavorable fraudulent reviews. All of these findings are issues that Yelp has to deal with in large quantities. Unfortunately, there is another regulatory issue that is somewhat unique to Yelp, “review-bombing.” (Noorie, 2021)
Review-bombing is when a significant number of people leave negative reviews on a restaurant or service provider’s page for a common reason. Often these review bombings stem from a social media virality effect when a business receives attention. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Yelp created a space on a business’ listing to update patrons with pertinent health measures that are required within their store, such as masking, distancing, and vaccination. Unfortunately, this has led to several review bombings which are often made up of large numbers of people who did not visit the restaurant or experience the health requirements themselves. A few examples of reviews that were screenshotted and tweeted out before Yelp removed them are below. (Noorie, 2021)
A less dangerous example of a review bomb that Yelp has needed to address was when WallStreetBets Reddit investors went after financial services giant JP Morgan, in defense of their precious leader Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. Below are some humorous jabs at JP Morgan, the first of which reads like a divorcee letter.
Above is the original Yelp.com website according to waybackmachine.com. It came from humble beginnings as a “glorified e-mail circle”, evident by the above illustration which has inputs for what you are looking for, and your friend’s email addresses. Following this yelp morphed into a question-and-answer style online forum, and then eventually into the traditional review platform we are familiar with today. Throughout all of its transformation Yelp, has kept its representation rather simple. Below we can see a search bar and location on its home page. Two inputs represent quick, convenient information.
Of course, this is not to say that Yelp has not advanced since its early days. The results provide information that is much more expansive than previous email responses. Below is a standard results page after searching for “pizza” in “Baltimore.”
The results popped up for the Charles Village neighborhood, which is near where I reside as a student at Johns Hopkins University. Within Yelp’s representation, we can see the circuit of culture. Identity shows within its ranking system of most relevant and best results. Production and consumption are shown by the blurb reviews next to the comment icon, as well as the tags which read “Pizza, Vegan, and Vegetarian” just below the star rating of &pizza – Charles Village. We can also see business production with tags showing checkmarks or “x” for options like delivery, takeout, and outdoor dining and their price tags represented by $ signs next to the tags. The only aspect of the circuit which we cannot presently see is regulation because Yelp is intentionally removing fraudulent, and targeted reviews. In that regard, we can see the regulation occurring by not seeing it at all.
- Canavan, Hillary Dixler. “Yelp Turns 10: From Startup to Online Review Dominance.” Eater. Eater, August 5, 2014. https://www.eater.com/2014/8/5/6177213/yelp-turns-10-from-startup-to-online-review-dominance.
- Davidson, Nathan. “The Funniest Yelp Reviews Ever.” Ranker, June 6, 2017. https://www.ranker.com/list/funny-yelp-reviews/nathandavidson.
- Hicks, Amy, Stephen Comp, Jeannie Horovitz, Madeline Hovarter, Maya Miki, and Jennifer L. Bevan. “Why People Use Yelp.com: An Exploration of Uses and Gratifications.” Computers in Human Behavior. Pergamon, July 23, 2012. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212001951.
- Luca, Michael, and Georgios Zervas. “Fake It till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud.” Management Science, January 28, 2016.
- Jackson, Sarah. “Tesla Fans Flood JPMorgan’s Yelp Page with 1-Star Reviews as Elon Musk Spars with the Bank.” Business Insider. Business Insider, November 23, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-tesla-jpmorgan-yelp-one-star-reviews-lawsuit-2021-11.
- Malik, Noorie. “Yelp Has Removed Thousands of ‘Review Bombing’ Attempts That Target Businesses’ Covid-19 Safety Measures, Such as Vaccine Requirements.” Business Insider. Business Insider, August 25, 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/yelp-businesses-list-vaccine-required-policies-get-negative-review-bombings-2021-8.
- Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2022 (yelptop100.com)
- Yelp for Business | Grow your business with Yelp