Yelp is surely one of the big success stories of the past year or two. It’s impressive just how visible their influence has become: those "People Love Us on Yelp" stickers can be spotted in tiny neighborhood pizzerias and fancy steakhouses alike, posted on the door like a badge of honor. And people aren’t just reviewing restaurants, either: Yelpers are writing surprisingly thoughtful write-ups of bookstores, parks, golf courses, concert venues, even dentists. In addition to an exponentially-expanding member base, there are a sizable portion of non-members (myself included) who are loath to bite into a burger before consulting the user review/social network megasite.
It’s easy to understand the value and attraction of a site like Yelp, but why did they flourish while other local review sites floundered? It’s a good question, and one that has been asked by Zhongmin Wang of Northwestern University, who recently published a study on the subject (its contents are nicely summarized in this article by Matt McGee). Wang’s thesis is that Yelp successfully emphasized the communal aspect of local search, and, in Wang’s words, "encourag[ed] reviewers to establish a social image or reputation." This concept, so crucial to social networking, seems to have been ignored by rivals like Yahoo! Local and Citysearch, where the reviews were often anonymous and devoid of context. By giving its users incentive to create profiles, share photos and videos and chat with each other, Yelp became a place to be and not just a place to dump an anonymous complaint about a burger.
Anonymity seems to be one of the biggest things holding back the competition. As the Internet has made very clear, everyone has an opinion, and who cares what someone without a name or face says about a burger? Why read it? You’ve tasted the burger and liked it, but why bother sharing that fact? You’re tossing a pebble in a gray ocean. Yelp has been successful because it discourages anonymity; users are prompted to create a profile before they can write a sentence, and the site places great value on initiating "real-life" interaction through coordinated events and meet-ups with other members.
Wang’s study is interesting to consider in the context of People Search websites like Spokeo. While you can’t review a burger on Spokeo, you can connect with people. We are always working hard to integrate different strands of data (i.e. information from Name Search, Email Search, Phone Search and Username Search) into a more fully-formed whole.The difference between "virtual" and "real life" identity will continue to blur as new technologies and websites provide us with better ways to communicate and share information in a meaningful way; if I may borrow a metaphor from The Wizard of Oz, this kind of meaningful communication isn’t possible by being a faceless voice behind the screen.