Jeremy Stoppelman_co-founder of Yelp.com_nytimes.com

nytimes.com / May 21-08
by Dan Fost

Yelp is a San Francisco Internet company that enables average folks to write reviews of everything from restaurants to plumbers to parks.

Yelp rarely removes reviews, even when advertisers complain, preferring to let the crowd have its say.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, 2.5 percent of all Internet users in March went to Yelp.com, and traffic there quadrupled over the last year.

Greg Sterling, of Sterling Market Intelligence, attributes Yelp’s success to its young, urban demographic, as well as to starting in San Francisco and entering other markets gradually, rather than rolling out nationally all at once. Yelp now has community managers in 17 cities. It also introduced some social networking and transparency, allowing users — Yelpers — to post profiles and follow each other’s activities.

Among the biggest targets in Yelp’s sights is the multibillion-dollar Yellow Pages market. “Yellow Pages has always been a pay-to-play environment,” Mr. Stoppelman said. “But now the power has shifted from businesses with money to little guys who perform. The reason is because that’s what’s good for the consumer.”

In other words, consumers who once chose a business because it had the biggest ad in the Yellow Pages are now just as likely to make that choice on the basis of favorable reviews from customers. “Ads aren’t playing that role,” Mr. Stoppelman said. “We’re about getting that information out there.”

Mr. Sterling cites a study from the ad agency McCann-Erickson that showed that local advertising in all media was a $100 billion business in 2007. While the $100 billion total has stayed relatively stable, Mr. Sterling said the Internet’s share was growing rapidly.

Pete Blackshaw, an executive vice president with Nielsen Online Strategic Services, said Yelp had created a site where people’s reputations matter. As on eBay, where buyers and sellers build reputations based on their dealings with others, Yelpers can get a complete view of other reviewers’ activities. “That counts for a lot,” Mr. Blackshaw said. “It keeps the abuse to a minimum.”

Russel Simmons, who is now the company’s chief technical officer, has written more than 100 reviews on Yelp, and Mr. Stoppelman more than 700 reviews.

“We let consumers that have actually patronized the business share their thoughts freely,” Mr. Stoppelman said. “We’re real people. We write real reviews.”

'The Coffee Was Lousy. The Wait Was Long.'