My Review Corpus is Bigger Than Your Review Corpus And Why It Matters

Yelp has obviously always wanted the spot of top dog in the general review world, moving out of their niche in restaurants and large markets several years ago. Google recognized Yelp’s strong position and made a play for them in late 2009. Obviously Yelp felt that their independent position was defensible. At the time, Google’s review efforts were lagging and Yelp was expanding across many fronts.

In their effort to buttress the public and market perception of themselves as the front runner in the general review world, Yelp has often touted both the quality and quantity of their review corpus. They proclaimed in March of 2010 of having reached 10 million reviews and again last December they stated that they would have 15 million reviews by the end of 2010. Last week the publicly offered number had now reached 17 million. Talk big and the markets perceive you as big. It’s what I call the Peacock Method of marketing.

Google on the other hand never would make a comment as to how many reviews that they had accumulated since rolling out reviews in 2007. It was understandable why Google never made a public comment. My back of the napkin calculations indicate that Google had only managed to accumulate a million or so reviews prior to the mid November rollout of Hotpot.

But things started to change after the rollout of Hotpot. Google essentially democratized the review process and made providing a rating much easier. It became obvious to me that they were making huge strides in gathering these ratings as well. By January, ratings were showing up in rural areas and mid major markets where Yelp has had little traction as well as in technically savvy and larger markets that had been Yelp’s strong hold. The ratings were also showing up in industires that were not traditionally review honey pots outside of Yelp’s central strength in restaurants. My calculations in mid January were that Google was managing to suck the air out of the general review world and moving towards parity with Yelp. The dominance that they crave and need, was even becoming conceivable.

When Marissa Meyer announced at SXSW conference that Google had garnered 3 million ratings and were achieving a greater than a 1 million a month run rate (Yelp’s run rate is in the 700,000 range), it was clear that the game for Google had changed. Traditionally Google has highlighted traffic or quantities of a given product when and only when they sensed that they were in the hunt for their objective. If you remember the many times Carter Maslan refused to answer the question of how many businesses had claimed their listing in Places. That was until they surpassed 4 million and now we hear the statistic on a regular basis.

Why is this important?

It reflects a watershed moment in the review marketplace. The opportunities going forward to be a dominant player with a general review site are greatly diminished. Markets, like the review market, will typically evolve towards an oligopoly and away from broad competition. Like desktop OSes and Search it will tend towards monopoly because of the huge benefits of scale and the network affects. It also means that Yelp is now in a much more critical battle, to not just be one of the players but to be the player.

The danger to Yelp in this battle is on several fronts but particularly so on the PR one. If you live by the sword you often die by the sword. Yelp’s long adherence to the review count as an indicator of who is king, while long postioning them as the leader, may now come to haunt them as Google accumulates an ever greater number of ratings. The reality of who has the most reviews/ratings is in actuality irrelevant but Yelp’s long reliance on the metric could well be their undoing as the market perceives Google as catching up.

But wait, Yelp notes that reviews are better than ratings. See, they say, we have long form content from dedicated reviewers offering up subtle details that ratings can’t capture. That may be true but perception is everything.  I have a sense that the market and users won’t care.

In many ways, ratings are the new reviews and while not as substantial, the fact that so many more people are likely to create them, dramatically increases their value to both the search and social sides of the equation. It also minimizes the ability of businesses to game them. Yelp has long relied on a small, dedicated community of avid, perhaps rabid, reviewers. Not very welcoming to the novice.

But once again, like on review count, these are PR battles that Yelp is not likely to win. Steve Jobs long ago realized that it was hard to value add if you were competing on techs and specs. In many ways review counts and the distinctions between reviews and ratings are like that. Jobs, in switching over to Intel, decided to no longer fight that battle on the desktop. Now, in the new phone and tablet markets of Apple’s creation, he has assiduously kept the conversation on benefits real and imagined not speeds and feeds.

It may be too late for Yelp to change the conversation away from total reviews and towards the benefits that they do offer. Working to increase the accessibility of their reviewer community rather than going mano a mano with Google on review/rating volume might be a better strategy. Touting the benefits to the reader of their site and system and reaching out more aggressively in smaller markets to counter Google’s recent city by city push might also work. Otherwise, long haul, they run the risk of not just of coming in second in the review total race but ending up in a rarely visited cul de sac populated with weirdos like DMOZ.org.

That Yelp will be a strong contender in the general review/rating space is obvious. Now the race is on to see who can be top dog in that market as the bulk of the benefits in a oligopoly go to the the market dominant player. But the winner may just be defined by the PR battle rather than the reality and Yelp may have fostered a conversation in which there is no winner.

Will Yelp win the public relations battle? Do you think that they will retain their position of the leading review site? If so for how long?

Welcome to the next round of My Review Corpus is Bigger than Your Review Corpus! May the company with the biggest corpus dominate.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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16 thoughts on “My Review Corpus is Bigger Than Your Review Corpus And Why It Matters”

  1. On the SPAMing piece, rating volume will help — which you point out. But (1) it is much easier to create fake ratings and (2) there is less meta-data to analyze to find SPAM. Not sure if the volume will dilute this risk.

    Also, I think a more accurate number here is the number of ratings/reviews per location. Google is global and Yelp is not. We did an analysis (which I will shamelessly promote below) that shows the number of new reviews per location in the US. The analysis goes through January 30, 2011 currently. It tells a very different story in the US market (Yelp continues to dominate).

    Check out the analysis here: http://blog.alllocal.com/2011/02/01/a-brief-history-of-the-local-review-space/

  2. One more thing to add… I do think that new review/rating growth rate is the correct metric. Review corpus is actually pretty close to meaningless for me as reviews do have a relatively short shelf-life in my opinion. +/- 2 years depending on industry. No one collecting reviews has really acknowledged this yet, but they will have to eventually.

  3. Hi Matt

    While it is easier to fake a rating than a review, sheer numbers of both and not using them too much for ranking is the best way to minimize spams affects.

    Nice article. There are many metrics that can measure review success. My point was that any hard metric will likely in the end put Yelp in an awkward position. It is a dangerous game and misses the point of review sites. they need to be promoting the “magic” and barring that the benefits to the consumer and business alike…. google is not a company that you want to get into a pissing match with over metrics….

  4. Great post Mike. Another thought on review/rating count is if google can mobilize places as well as yelp has. While google might continue to get numbers of ratings, I think that they are still behind the usefulness of data, ux, etc that yelp can offer on a mobile phone app. Google is making up for it in marketing efforts. But people will probably chose one app or the other after a test.

    Yelp is going to have to allow mobile reviews/ratings to be instantly published if they want to keep competing in review count. They do that and they might just keep up. But I think the real challenge is giving the consumers a mobile app product that provides excellent information consistently. The one that does that the best will hold the review space.

  5. @Mike
    I think, if they stay in the review count makes us better mode, that they will be forced to open up mobile reivews as you note.

    For me, living a rural environment, the better data of Google Places offsets the superior interface of Yelp. In the end I use both but neither as a trusted source.

  6. The Yellow Pages here in Canada know the end is very near, and they are desperately seeking other revenue streams. Right now they are buying up the competition (Canadian Directories) as well as advertising big-time on all media about their ability to “help” businesses online with SEO. For the most part, what they really do is sell AdWords (although they don’t come out and say it) at $90.00 per keyword per month. And the strangest aspect of this “marketing” is that the click through’s go to the business’s Yellow Page listing… not the business’s website: scary and self serving to say the least.

  7. When reading this post I became confused at the main point. Are you saying that Google is winning the review war simply because they have a tool to collect more OR that Yelp needs to change the argument from more reviews to better reviews?

    On a somewhat related note: there have been a large number of newspaper websites that have changed their commenting system over to rely upon Facebook user accounts for login/ credentials. The result has been less hostile commenting and more intelligent conversations between people who are a bit more transparent. If through this “Hotpot” interface Google is able to create more transparency then yes they will win the review war. Even Yelp can be gamed but if Google eventually gets some sort of verifiable ID in place for users you can then call checkmate.

  8. You’ve touched on a subject that I obsess about these days while wishing there was a better solution. You said: “I use both but neither as a trusted source.”

    Query “review” at freelancer.com or fiverr.com and it quickly becomes clear why neither Yelp or Google can be trusted. What can you believe when $5 can buy you a myriad of 5 star reviews?

    Have you checked out customerlobby.com? There you can get verified reviews. Also, do a search on link:bonneyplumbing.com and you’ll see that Google is recognizing those reviews coming from Customer Lobby. Nice solution that has a pretty high trust factor. But it’s too bad the business has to pay for verified, positive reviews they already worked so hard to achieve.

  9. @Mark

    I am arguing that Yelp started the review count as the metric of the “best” review site. They did so to position themselves. But now that Google is aggregating ratings at a faster rate, Yelp is in danger of losing the PR battle. In losing the PR war they may lose the war… and it would be behoove Yelp to take a different tact… point being that you don’t really want to get in a pissing match with an elephant… their bladder is much, much bigger.

    Google’s Hotpot sign in system doesn’t require public transparency just a nickname.

  10. Mike: Very astute analysis. In a general sense when any business goes out and advertises and markets to the public on one basis….and then a competitor can outperform the original business in that capacity….its a big problem for the initial advertiser/marketer. In fact, I’ve been there with a business.

    Its not a pleasant experience.

    Frankly, I couldn’t care less about reviews versus ratings. I doubt if the “buying/review reading” public could care less either. If I’m looking at restaurants I do want to read reviews. Currently my first alternative is to go to Yelp. It has a depth of reviews.

    If at some point in the future I perceive that the “corpus” of reviews in Google is in some way “superior” to those at Yelp I’ll change my review reading tendency.

    Frankly, in that Google is such an enormous monopoly when it comes to search I hope that Yelp maintains an edge for a long long time.

  11. @Earl
    You say you “couldn’t care less about reviews versus ratings”… if Google had lots of ratings with less meaty content would you find that valuable?

    This should be an interesting fight. Google is attempting to do an end run on Yelp by going almost totally mobile and towards ratings rather than desktop and reviews. Can they build out the value of the information AND its presentation in such a way to beat Yelp?

  12. Mike: Let me retract. I’d rather read reviews. If I’m evaluating services or products I’d rather see what people say in depth.

    If Google’s effort is focused on mobile versus desktop and its volume of ratings soars versus meaty reviews…well I’d still go to Yelp to read in depth information. I would suspect that the voluminous readers of reviews would do the same.

  13. @Earl

    Google will use the information differently than Yelp. IE to enhance blended and 7 pack results and provide a few good answers…. Yelp is looking to provide granular detail and offers a great interface to that.

    But in the end they have 50 million uniques (about what Maps had when Places were there…) with who knows how many searches…. and the main Google SERPS had 11 billion searches with probably close to 2.5 billion with local intent..

  14. Mike: Well said as to the different presentations and uses. Also, the differences in volume of traffic are incredible.

    So when you take a look at the difference in volume of traffic it takes us back to your original premise…whose review corpus is bigger?

    The vast difference in volume of searches between google and Yelp and the relatively new extraordinary volume of google ratings/reviews suggests that “crowing/marketing/advertising” about MOST VOLUME is not an approach that Yelp wants to take….or can take.

    Very insightful article.

  15. I’m looking at this in greater detail, including Matt’s excellent research referenced in the first comment above: http://blog.alllocal.com/2011/02/01/a-brief-history-of-the-local-review-space/

    Since discussing this I went back and read reviews and Google/HotPot/Places ratings/reviews.

    Google ratings are brief and non informational on the 2 restaurants. Merely the barest information. Possibly good for creating responses through mobile, but not meaty enough for a reader interested in really evaluating the restaurant. On the other hand the Yelp and reviews from other sources were substantive and thorough.

    I acknowledge your points above. Google is a giant with size in the search world that is unmatched. Yelp is large in its own right, and according to one market source cracked the list of the 50 most visited sites in the US recently. Regardless it is small relative to Google. Dramatically small.

    On that basis, and based on Google’s recent promotion of HotPot and the results in volume…..Yelp will quickly lose the battle for whose “corpus of reviews” is bigger as you suggest.

    Regardless, I see Yelp as a wonderful resource, with excellent mobile apps and a very attractive interface. Moreover, Yelp, compared to many directories has done a masterful job of obtaining high Serps rankings for critical phrases relative to the businesses it rates.

    I think back to a very effective and frankly an appropriate selling pitch used by our friends, the YP’s for many years (no longer appropriate to them these days, IMHO).

    Yelp is a place that people will go to to ultimately buy. If I’m going out. I want to read Yelp reviews. It may hold attack reviews and it may hold faked positive reviews. (Frankly all review sites have them now.) If I’m about to spend my money I want weighty evaluations. Yelp encourages them, Google ratings don’t.

    If I’m marketing Yelp, promoting its ventures and selling its advertising I’d quickly move to a pitch like that. I’d evaluate the time spent on Yelp pages. I bet its substantial compared to other sites. If I were Yelp I’d commission studies to see if that is an accurate claim. I’d also go back to that eager beaver Yelp community and see if I can get them to regularly acknowledge they visited a business/restaurant after reading Yelp reviews.

    Its a robust site. I hope it adjusts accordingly even if the “bigger corpus of reviews” argument/pitch no longer applies.

  16. @Earl

    Your businesses are in urban areas where Yelp is strong but are not in the restaurant category. Do you see any significant traffic from Yelp and here is the $64,000 question: Would you benefit from advertising with them?

    Is Yelp still too narrowly focused to succeed as a general local site?

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