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How Yelp Built a Business on Zero-Party Data

You’ve probably used Yelp many times  to find services or restaurants. What you probably didn’t think about was the data used to drive Yelp and how it has matured over time. The data comes in two parts: the search experience, and the review experience.

Founded in 2004, Yelp is a popular business review site with over 244 million reviews on its business listing pages. In 2021, the company saw 46 million unique visitors to its desktop webpages and 56.7 million unique visitors to its mobile sites. 

 

Yelp restaurant data filters

Yelp started as a social network for people to get recommendations for food and services from their friends and network of connections. However, as the company quickly discovered users were motivated to add reviews of business and tag them with relevant metadata, the website grew to create a new category and social behavior that internet consumers depend upon today. Competitors have cropped up from leaders like Google, Meta, and more. While those reviews have become a controversial thorn in the side of many business owners, who claim Yelp doesn’t properly vet reviews that can cause serious harm to local businesses, Yelp remains a pioneer of giving people access to crowd-sourced information about local businesses, products, and restaurants. 

 

 

Searching

Austin, Texas, where I live, has lots of taco options. However, I would have never thought there would be over 100 filter options that apply to my search for tacos in my town  — with 60+ options in “Category” alone. One cool thing about the Yelp search experience is that you can save searches for future use  — potentially saving you time when you’re looking for a quick bite. Because you’ve voluntarily provided this data, Yelp can also provide helpful future recommendations via email or push notifications. The better recommendations they provide, the more likely you’ll be to use Yelp — and more users means good things for the revenue they can make from advertisements.

 

Reviewing

As you can imagine, the search results are only as powerful as data available on the restaurants. This is why Yelp loves its users to provide reviews and recommendations. After patronizing a restaurant (either through a reservation or in-person dining experience or a pickup or delivery order), the user is prompted to add or confirm data about the restaurant. This exchange of information provides valuable data to Yelp — and useful information to future restaurant diners. 

Yelp review interface

The review experience also gives Yelp the opportunity to gather meaningful metadata from customers — from accessibility, convenience, kid-friendliness, and dozens of other attributes. This incredibly complex, dynamic, and rich data environment has created a multibillion dollar company by organizing the data and making it beneficial to all parties involved to share data. 

 

What I like

Yelp makes it so easy to collect your preferences in context. While searching or reviewing, they ask you to confirm if your current filter or search results are relevant for all future searches. 

Yelp also does a great job of balancing the user experience with their own data needs. They don’t ask every reviewer to fill out all 100 attributes, but rather, ask for information incrementally over time across multiple reviews AND customers as a low-effort way for Yelp users to give back to the site by answering a question or two — while improving the site and app experience for future users.  

 

What next?

Underneath the sophisticated data structures and excellent UX, what drives Yelp is actually a community of dedicated reviewers. You can see some reviewers get the “Elite” tag next to their profiles after contributing a ton of reviews and information. 

One thing Yelp could do better is to use the attributes of reviewers to showcase relevant reviews to me — for example, I wouldn’t mind seeing recommendations from another reviewer with two young kids who also likes margaritas. :) 

Many sites continue to mimic Yelp, and Ratings and Reviews has become a small industry in its own right, with businesses managing reviews for software, electronics, products, and nearly every industry on the planet. Many review management platforms have also emerged to help businesses manage their reputation and reviews. And of course, all of this user-generated information on businesses is prolific across social media channels. 

But it all began with Yelp.

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