Yelp is turning 10 years old, and has announced it has accumulated 57 million reviews filled to the brim with colloquialisms and verbal memes. It is dropping a new tool to explore all of those ideas and fads it calls "Trends." For all of its ideas and accomplishments, Yelp is still a niche website. The Trends tool is a new addition to their formula, but can it find an audience outside of their core power users?
Yelp puts a lot of effort into helping users identify what's popular in their local areas. The site already publishes a weekly list of what's hot in one's local area, based on local reviews. It's also provided heat maps and emailed newsletters. Yelp Trends represents a new way of looking at all of the data the company has. It harkens back to Yelp's true purpose: finding what's hip in your area.
You use Yelp Trends like any other search engine, except you can compare multiple search terms in the context of one city. The examples Yelp gives include terms like "CrossFit" and "craft beer." The site gives the user a visual line graph with some rough numbers that are meant to indicate popularity. Not great for any level of precision analysis, but good enough to tell someone what's trending.
Yelp's Unreliable Data
In order to power Trends, Yelp draws upon the data it has accumulated from user reviews over the past 10 years. Yelp is utilizing reviews from 98 cities spread across 20 countries, so there is a wealth of information to play with. The question is how much of that information is viable.
Yelp is infamous for faked reviews, regardless of whether they allow it consciously. Then there is the question of user reliability.
If Yelp is using user reviews to judge popularity, is it applying any kind of scrutiny to this process? For example, say we have two users. The first user says "I love CrossFit," the second says "I hate CrossFit." Is Yelp ranking CrossFit as a trending term in both cases? If so, this presents a problem with the conclusions Yelp Trends comes to.
When Google unveiled its Trends search engine, SEOs quickly embraced it as a tool to figure out what was happening within a specific niche. That tool is far more robust than Yelp's current offering, so don't expect a lot of related data to help you uncover hidden gems.
Instead, Yelp Trends will help you identify when something is in decline or demand in your local area. For example, food trucks are in decline in Los Angeles but up in Chicago. If you wanted to franchise a food truck portion of your growing restaurant chain, you might consider expanding to Chicago instead.
Yelp Trends can also help a business owner expand into related territory to try and keep up with the changing trends. For example, searching for "Boba" and "Smoothie" in San Francisco would show both trends are high in the city, but smoothies far eclipse boba as San Franciscan's drink of choice.
Yelp has also challenged students to find innovative ways to harness this data, sponsoring a contest worth $5,000. With Yelp's Academic Dataset, it hopes that students will be able to predict how many stars a business will receive, or how often a local business gets foot traffic. In addition to the $5,000 prize, Yelp is offering an additional $1,000 if a student's work is published in academic papers and up to $500 in travel expenses to present that research.
I believe that smart business owners with an eye on Trends will find great value with this tool, but it's important not to bank one's business on the ideas Trends gives. Remember that Yelp is full of unreliable user information, and is likely guilty of censoring reviews (both fictional and real). Yelp hasn't publicly stated if that "compromised" data is part of Trends, but there is already a level of unreliability based on how Yelp uses its own data.
Yelp Trends might be a nice celebratory pat on the back for the company in a time of PR crisis, and it has some value. Given the company's current track record, however, it's wise to be skeptical about basing your business around what Yelp says is trending.