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Q&A with Miriam Warren, Director of Marketing at Yelp

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Miriam Warren of Yelp is speaking at SES Toronto on June 9, on the panel "Follow the Carrot: Cool Mobile Apps" in the Geek Track. Miriam is director of marketing for Yelp, and is based in New York. She was gracious enough to respond to my detailed questions.

I have to admit, along with dishing the dirt about the ins and outs of building the Yelp user community, Miriam is possessed of an uncanny instinct for all things Toronto! The pub recommendation of the Village Idiot is inventive and quirky, and the other hotspot recommendations are right on.

Plus, her knowledge of my neighborhood, and the roving reviewer Andre D., is downright spooky! I have the feeling they'll be sitting across from me next time I venture up to the Queen's Pasta Cafe... or helping me try on shoes at the New Balance Store.

Andrew Goodman: Hi Miriam, and a warm welcome to SES Toronto. There is so much to talk about with the explosion of user-generated content, and useful mobile apps that knit together information in a way that directly helps users with the next thing they're about to do: where to begin? Why don't I start with sort of a Canadian question.

Yelp expanded in Canada slowly at first, and has now picked up the pace. Was the growth of Canadian reviews harder to kickstart without local community managers on the ground? When were they added? How important will those be in growing membership and traffic in the future? What are some of the things community managers do?

Miriam Warren: Good questions, and let me take a moment to first explain Yelp's methodology. It's our mission to be an important and useful local resource. We don't expect the awareness of Yelp in San Francisco, for example, to happen overnight in a new city like Toronto.

Our approach is to roll out city by city, instead of a "big bang" launch. That allows us to focus our efforts in our most active cities – a mile deep and an inch wide, if you will – to make Yelp a truly valuable resource to those communities.

This time last year, we launched Yelp Canada. In that time we've definitely seen it embraced by locals, but you're right, having a Community Manager (CM) is an integral part of creating further awareness and in fact, offline events are also a big part of what we do at Yelp. We recently hired two CMs in Canada: one in Vancouver and one right here in Toronto.

When we have that local person on the ground, we have absolutely seen that translate into more engagement on the community side. In fact, I actually used to be the Washington, D.C. community manager, so I can speak very closely to that role! Suffice it to say, these folks wear many hats, whether it's engaging the community both online and off, educating business owners, throwing events, writing the Weekly Yelp and much, much more.

Saying that, we understand that local communities take time to root and grow, and we believe with this approach we allow – if not foster – that.

AG: What kind of growth in metrics (app downloads, memberships, traffic) is Yelp currently experiencing? In Canada, specifically?

MW: We actually don't break metrics out by city or market but I can tell you that in the past 30 days Yelp had over 21 million users to the site worldwide. In terms of the iPhone, we launched our Yelp for iPhone app less than a year ago, and that application alone already accounts for 5 percent of our overall site traffic.

As I mentioned before, Canada is performing exactly as we'd hope. And again, we're seeing engagement from the locals here on a number of levels.

AG: I've just used your app on an iPhone, and the proximity aspect is so vital to the day-to-day experience looking for a restaurant or other local hotspot. So Urban Spoon et al. have some competition to contend with in you guys!

Can you speak to the notion of rank order of results? I know that power users may select different criteria to sort businesses, but especially on a mobile app, most will want a "lazy person's helping hand" with a "smart" relevancy app that can somehow weigh the importance of review quantity, quality, and other factors, without the user having to do anything. Is it harder than it looks to build these sorting algos?

MW: Rank is a great question, and let me clarify that it does differ on a search you might be doing on the site, as opposed to on the iPhone. The main reason behind this is because our iPhone application takes advantage of the device's GPS capabilities to allow us to pull in nearby businesses.

For example, I'm not from Toronto (I live in New York), so if I'm looking for a bar to grab a glass of wine to unwind after this panel, I could whip out my iPhone, hit "nearby," and that search will pull in every business within a 4-block radius. From there, I can further narrow my search by hitting "Bars" and then read reviews, check the ratings and even map directions or call the business.

For the lazy – or perhaps a better way to phrase, the more adventurous person – we also have "Hot on Yelp," which are our community's most bookmarked businesses in the past month, which will also be reflected in the "Nearby" search. It's a great way to try out a buzzed-about local business, whether just-opened or just-discovered.

In terms of building, it was definitely an investment from our end. Our engineers actually had to learn how to code an iPhone app. It has very much been an ongoing effort – especially as more features roll out on the iPhone – but one we think has been worth it! And judging by the popularity, our users think so, too.

AG: How important is critical mass of content to the usefulness of a review site, and why do you think Yelp has been so successful in getting to this point?

MW: As I spoke to a bit earlier, it's very important. A local guide can't be truly useful if there isn't content. If you went to Yelp – or any user-generated reviews site – and there wasn't any information, would you go back? Not likely. Again, that's why we take our time growing each city individually.

Additionally, the content also has to be TRUSTED.

We're very lucky that we have an incredibly vibrant and engaged community – one that definitely transcends geography. We saw a lot of cross-traffic between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, for example, and then later between San Francisco and New York, which has helped foster awareness about the site on a national scale.

We also encourage all contributors to use a real photo and name, and provide facts about themselves on their Yelp page. That way you, the consumer of that content, can tell a lot about who the reviewer is just by reading their reviews, and choose for yourself whether Joe B. in LA might be as picky about getting his haircut as you, or how many other readers found that review useful by votes at the bottom of the review.

We also have a number of other site features that help protect from "spammy" reviews, to ensure the content really is contributed by "real people with real experiences."

AG: Recently, Yelp added functionality for business owners to respond to reviews. In terms of negative reviews, in your personal view is it more powerful for the business owner to respond, or for other happy customers to chime in? Is it both? Does it depend?

MW: Actually, business owners have been able to respond to reviewers via Private Messaging since April of last year, when we first introduced Yelp for Business Owners. That's a free suite of tools that allows businesses to have more of a voice and personality on the site.

Given the positive response, we continued to roll out additional features including a separate page for "About this Business", which allows businesses to provide insight on the owners and specialties, and recommend other businesses. It also gives them the ability to offer announcements, sales and specials.

Over the past year, we noticed that savvy business owners have used the Private Messaging feature effectively, and in many cases were able to open a dialog with their customers that otherwise might not have happened. Of equal importance, they didn't abuse the feature.

We've long considered adding Public Comments, which I believe you were referring to earlier, to the site, but wanted to do it in a thoughtful manner so as not to upset the balance within the Yelp community.

We've been very pleased with the roll out of this feature and have found that business owners have been happy to clarify or correct wrong information that may be posted in a review (menu items, hours of operation, etc.). We see this as a benefit both for consumers reading those reviews as well as the business.

My personal view is that it is CRITICAL for business owners to be a part of the discussion that customers are having about their business. I recommend taking the time to educate yourself on the FAQs, leveraging Yelp for Business Owners, and remembering that the interactions you're having online are just as important – if not more so – than the ones you're having in-person.

AG: So using the Yelp mobile app from my home, I noticed that this guy Andre D. has been all up and down Bloor Street West, reviewing everything in minute detail right down to how other restaurant patrons were dressed, and that the guacamole, salsa, and sour cream were placed on "one side only" of the nacho plate. What is the deal with this guy? Is he for real? A professional comic? You don't have to answer.

MW: Andre D. is one of our newest Elite yelpers, and he's a proud Westender through and through, just like our Toronto community manager, Kat F. Andre lives just west of Bloor West Village, which as you know is a vibrant Ukrainian & Polish community and strip of businesses that includes everything from bakeries and pubs to burger joints and Italian patio cafes.

We love reading Andre's take on the best of the West, as he's loyal to the neighborhood and provides great perspective to the rest of Toronto Yelpers, who may never have ventured out into the area before!

AG: Will you use Yelp to find yourself some local hotspots while you're here? Could you guys pull up some suggested bars and restaurants near the Sheraton Centre at Queen and University, to give our attendees an idea of some places that have positive reviews?

MW: I use Yelp to find local hotspots in every place I travel to, so absolutely I'll use it whilst in Toronto! I've been to Toronto many times since my first visit in 1998 and am quite fond of the city and its people (and am a big fan of both the butter chicken roti at Gandhi and The Drake Hotel.)

Restaurants:

Nota Bene

Great, new-ish romantic restaurant with excellent selection, service and prime location right at the corner of Queen/University. Often suggested for birthday dinners or first dates.

Beer Bistro

Restaurant/bar that's very, very popular among the city's beer aficionados, thanks to its unbelievable beer selection and incorporation of exotic beers into its dishes (chili, ribs, steak, breading/batter, etc.).

Queen Mother Cafe

Thai fusion restaurant that's reputed to have the city's best pad thai. Lots of options for vegetarians and meat eaters alike -- try to order from the list of daily specials if you can. To-die-for cake selection and a really cute secret/secluded patio in the backyard. If you're looking for nightlife, the owner also owns the Rivoli down the street, which serves food but is more of a singer/songwriter jazz club venue.

Bars:

The neighborhood that the Sheraton is in isn't really well known for its local bars -- most of the 'entertainment district' is pricey and not intended for locals. In fact, most people visit from out of town or the suburbs, so your best bet is to hit one of these:

Village Idiot Pub & Grill

Right across from AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), the Village Idiot's been around for eons and attracts lots of different clientele, including students and locals who drool over their "Idiot Fries." They're thick-cut potatoes smothered in a secret sauce that tastes barbequey and zesty at the same time. Friendly and personable service.

Barchef

One of the city's only "cocktail bars." We haven't been here yet, but are looking forward to trying it out thanks to the power of Yelp!

AG: How much does a company like yours rely on a search engine like Google or Yahoo? For organic traffic? Do you use paid search? Is rich data integration (Yahoo SearchMonkey, Google Rich Snippets) an opportunity? Do you see the competition with search engines, who seek to dominate local listings, as posing any threats to companies like Yelp?

MW: Yelp has a very high SEO rating with search engines, including Google and Yahoo. Oftentimes, a business' Yelp listing will show up above a their own website. Saying that, that's really only valuable if you know the EXACT name of that business you're looking for. Yelp is much more of a "discovery" destination for information about your neighborhood or city that you're visiting.

We actually like to think of it as a "problem solver." For example, a consumer needs to find a business that fits her needs, whether it's a mechanic, hairdresser or just a stiff drink. A business owner needs to drive traffic through his door. Yelp serves as the connector for both the consumer and the business owner.



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