A lunch date with Yelp
If you're going to talk shop with two Yelp executives over lunch, how do you pick the restaurant?
Easy: You book whichever conveniently located, reasonably priced establishment offers a 1,000-point reward on OpenTable.
Alas, the 1,000-point restaurant I'd picked for our meeting a week ago had suffered a power failure that morning. So instead, Yelp's Vince Sollitto (vice president of communications) and Luther Lowe (business outreach manager) used the Yelp application on their phones to investigate alternate options nearby. On the other side of Connecticut Avenue, I peeked in windows to see which restaurants had seating available and interesting menus. It being Bastille Day, we agreed on Bistrot du Coin.
I started my questions by asking about the most confusing aspect of the user-review site: Yelp's automated screening of write-ups to keep out spam and shilling.
Sollitto and Lowe said the San Francisco-based company would rather err on the side of stringency. They didn't give the "that's not a bug, that's a feature" defense, but they didn't promise dramatic improvements to the screening process either. So if your fair-minded review gets whisked out of view by Yelp's undisclosed algorithms, all I can suggest is that you revise it and see if a 1.1 version fares better.
(I also noted that some people accuse Yelp of running pay-for-play scams, which they denied. You should know that since April, Yelp advertisers can't promote a "favorite review" to the top of the list.)
One in four Yelp searches now comes from a mobile device, so I asked about its choice of smart phone platforms. Sollitto said its iPhone app had been a terrific success, but the company didn't enjoy having to wait for Apple to approve each update to it. With Yelp's Android application -- nearing one million downloads -- the company can ship new releases as fast as it can write them.
Yelp's developers would give a poor review to BlackBerry development, considering the difficulty of adapting its software to all the different BlackBerry devices. On the other hand, writing a webOS app for Palm's Pre and Pixi was a cinch -- but the company isn't happy with the poor reward that effort has yielded. That's one reason Yelp doesn't plan to rush out an app for Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform.
Yelp's iPhone and Android apps now support two features popularized by the social-media site/game Foursquare --the ability to "check in" to an establishment and collect virtual badges for your check-ins. Lowe and Sollitto said they weren't trying to imitate Foursquare or similar sites such as Gowalla, but that people do enjoy the competitive aspect of check-ins -- Yelp saw a 40 percent increase in app downloads after adding that feature.
Finally, I passed on a reader's query: Will Yelp offer any cooperative-buying options like those provided by Chicago-based Groupon or D.C.-based LivingSocial? (Disclaimer: The latter site is run by Tim O'Shaughnessy, son-in-law of Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Donald E. Graham). Lowe said that wasn't in the plan, but the company would expand its system of "Hot on Yelp" promotions to include coupons redeemable for later on; its blog today notes one such deal for Houston salon- and spa-goers.
One other note about our lunch: It being Bastille Day in a French restaurant, the restaurant was crowded and the service suffered. As the wait for our entrees dragged on, I had to laugh at the thought of these delays happening to employees of a site that publicizes diners' critiques of restaurants.
But neither Sollitto nor Lowe conspicuously fired up the Yelp app in view of the staff, told our waiter "do you know who you're dealing with?!" or demanded to see the manager. Neither even posted a write-up of the place. (Lowe told me later that he doesn't write reviews, period.)
What else would you have liked me to ask these two? What should I quiz them about next time?
July 21, 2010; 11:12 AM ET
Categories: Location awareness , Mobile , Social media
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