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Live Blog: SMX Keynote Conversation With Yelp COO, Geoff Donaker

Good morning! It’s almost time for day two of SMX East to begin and the plan is to live blog this morning’s keynote conversation between Yelp COO Geoff Donaker and Search Engine Land Executive Editor, Chris Sherman. But first, I’m the master of ceremonies and so I need to run up to the stage and do some introductions. Back in a moment!

Okay, that was quick and painless. So here we go! Nice to have a keynote on local search, which is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Chris asks first for some background on Yelp and the focus on local search.

Geoff Donaker: Yelp is the place you go where you’re looking for a local business, a dentist, etc. Yelp has evolved thanks to its community as a popular web site and now a mobile application. Yelp started when CEO Jeremy Stoppelman moved to San Francisco and couldn’t find a doctor on the web.

Chris: Tell me about your traffic.

Geoff: About 38 million unique visitors last month on the web site. We have about 13 million reviews. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are adding their own coupons, business information, etc. Yelp has a free set of tool for business owners.

Yelp was San Francisco-only for about the first year-and-a-half of its existence. We wanted to focus on quality, not quantity. Starting small and simple helped us keep it simple. We also started with a review filter that looks for suspicious activity in reviewing activity. It’s much more complex now. Those were a couple things that helped us focus on quality.

Chris: That review filter has led to some lawsuits. How do you respond to that?

Geoff: Education is the key. It was our fault for not spreading the word earlier how the review filter works. But now when we explain that there’s a filter and show its impact on a business page, people understand it better.

Chris asks about the review algorithm. Geoff says that, on a business page, recency is one of the primary factors. They want the most recent, trusted reviews showing up top.

Geoff also explains about Yelp’s offerings for business owners.

Chris asks about reputation management for small business owners.

GD: Part of it is responsiveness. Take the time to get in touch with anybody that reviews your business. Keep it positive. Nobody likes to be attacked, but getting defensive doesn’t help. Fix any problems.


Chris: How’s the mobile space for Yelp?

GD: Roughly three million per month using the downloaded Yelp apps — that’s unique devices on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry. Desktop traffic drops off on weekends, while mobile goes up. On Saturdays, roughly half of all Yelp searches are from mobile devices.

Chris: What’s going on with Google? How’s the relationship? I’ve seen it described as “complicated.”

GD: They’re the 800-lb. gorilla. They’re our biggest partner, but also possibly our biggest competitor some day. We use Google products and services, we buy Google ads from time to time. One of our top sources of traffic is people who search “yelp” on Google. If Google wanted to squeeze Yelp out in the future, that would complicate things. But we haven’t seen anything like that.

Chris asks about rumors of Google buying Yelp last year and plans for IPO in the future.

GD: We don’t see any reason not to be an independent company for years to come. Will we go public at some point? Certainly that’s the intention. We had a big fund raising event at the beginning of this year that should keep us going for a few years, but we’ll go public some day. Whether that’s a year or two of three out, I don’t know.

Chris asks about international markets compared to the U.S.

GD: There are always cultural differences as you move from country to country and market, but people’s desire to talk about local businesses are pretty much the same across different markets.

Chris asks about check-ins and group buying – are they fads?

GD: I think probably both are here to stay in some form. Check-ins as a concept are here to stay, but what exact form it becomes, I can’t say. Our initial tests into “deal of the day” has been really good. When we email people about that, we have to be really careful about the business we’re advertising.

Chris asks about Foursquare, Groupon – are they competitors?

GD: Interesting thing about the local space is that we’re all symbiotic to some degree. We compete with them on some areas, but we’re also partners in a sense, too.

Chris: Any problems with privacy on Yelp?

GD: People who choose to share on Yelp are doing it deliberately, you’re not trying to keep your reviews private.

Chris: What differences do you see between platforms? Are mobile users different from desktop users?

GD: Yes, writing reviews is the number one activity we see from desktop users. On mobile, you can only draft a review. You can’t publish it except from the desktop. On mobile, we also see a lot of photo activity — thousands of photos being uploaded every day.

Chris asks about instances of seeing small businesses use Yelp in a unique way. Geoff talks about a pawn shop/broker in the Bay Area. Company purposely mistreated low-end customers coming in to pawn watches, etc., in tough times — but changing how they do business after they started seeing negative reviews. Pawn shop used to have a VIP room in the back for best customers, but instead did that out front and changed how they treat all customers.

Chris asks about community aspects.

GD: There are 45 cities around the world that have a Yelp Community Manager. They have regular meetups. It helps improve the quality of content and contributions because you know they people in your community who you’re writing for.

Chris: What about Steve Jobs comments earlier this year that people don’t search on mobile.

GD: It is a bit different when you’re on a mobile device. It’s just harder to do a longform search. On the flip side, you have access to some information much more quickly. Mobile search is less text-based.

Chris: What about voice search?

GD: Agrees it could be a big thing. We’d like to make sure the quality is good before we launch that, but it’s of interest to us.

Audience Questions

Greg Sterling asks if he agrees that reviews are becoming a commodity, and that diminishes what makes Yelp different?

GD: Haven’t seen evidence that reviews are becoming a commodity. Unlike general search, there’s not a ton of local content out there. We only have 13 million reviews, yet we’re bigger than everything else. There’s less than one review on Yelp for every business in the U.S. Still a long way to go before the job of customer reviews is done. I think what makes us different is what Chris asked about earlier – this idea of our community. For some users, Yelp becomes “sort of a lifestyle blog.” I haven’t seen that on other sites.

Yelp Ambassadors – should small businesses reach out to them, or avoid them? (laughs)

G: Called “Community Managers” internally. They’re paid Yelp employees. “Absolutely” business owners should get to know them. They set the tone for the Yelp community locally. They can’t fix any problems you may have, but they can offer tips and maybe provide some coaching.

Question about how Yelp gets businesses to use Yelp.

GD: Focus is mainly on getting users on Yelp, not businesses. The users will encourage their favorite businesses to adopt Yelp.

And with that we’re done! Thanks for reading.

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