Nostalgic, home-sick and God-sick, empowered and informed and enfranchised, constantly in touch with one another, we are a new kind of god-talkers …
—Phyllis A. Tickle, God-Talk in America
We live in an age of virtuous cuisine. Everything from our breakfast cereals, coffee and produce to our fruits, meats and ice creams is marketed with earnest taglines promising not just nourishment and taste but extra culinary excellence bordering on spiritual bliss.
It’s as if the citizens of the world’s only Judeo-Christian nation, who have traditionally loved talking about God and continue to do so in cyberspace, where eternal issues can be produced, reproduced, dissected and linked to ad infinitum, have found a new passion: Food-talk is replacing god-talk as the new American pastime.
“True taste, true nourishment, true nature,” reads the Autumn Wheat cereal made by Kashi, a natural-foods company named after India’s most sacred pilgrimage site. “Right livelihood is simply defined as ‘good for me, good for you and good for everybody who touches it,’” Steve Demos, founder of the Silk brand of soymilk and other organic dairy substitutes, told Elephant, an online magazine dedicated to a mindful life, in a 2008 interview.
Of course, food is the basis of life, and the act of eating has been something of a spiritual experience through much of human history. It’s not surprising then, that food and spirituality have come to occupy large chunks of the Internet. But of the roughly 10,000 food-related websites in the United States, there’s probably just one that approaches the discussion of food with almost religious fervor. That website is Yelp.
Yelp is widely acknowledged to be a potent business force. According to Alexa, a subsidiary of Amazon.com that monitors commercial web traffic data, Yelp ranked 48th among the top 500 food-related websites in the nation—far ahead of Groupon, Allrecipes, Livingsocial and the Food Network, which ranked 86th, 184th, 202nd and 232nd respectively.
Although Yelp reviews all kinds of businesses, restaurant reviews are by far the largest portion of its content. And the growth of those reviews in recent years has been nothing short of astonishing. In 2012, the year that Yelp was on the go in 49 U.S. states and 33 overseas markets, with a market value of slightly less than $1.5 billion, the website had posted more than 27 million restaurant reviews, nearly seven times the number of reviews at the end of 2008—and up from just 1 million in mid-2007.
It’s hard to believe that a company that has struggled with profits can boast such huge gains, coming as they did right under the shadow of the worst recession since the Great Depression. My theory for Yelp’s spectacular success with restaurant reviews in the service-business sector is that just like the post-9/11 baby boom, which is widely attributed to the prevailing atmosphere of existential anxiety at the time, Yelping Americans, whether hipsters, yuppies, hippies or just college students, found in food an escape from the nation’s financial woes. The big difference was that instead of filling up churches and synagogues, they crowd-sourced their way into restaurants.
Can it be that people review based not only on the act or reviewing a restaurant but that some chemicals are released in the brain as a kind of natural high when one completes the act of reviewing a restaurant or other business on Yelp? I would argue yes. Just like Pavlov’s dog, people come back to this site again and again, both to leave a review and to “receive their bone”, or their reward. What is their reward? Well we know a few things for sure that it is not.
It is not money, as they are largely unpaid for this work. And by the way it is a lot of work, because often these reviews involved very well thought out essays and poetry, some of which is better composed and put together than the latest novels or works of fiction. These people do not receive and therefore not motivated by money. What then, is their primary motivation? We would have to ask a few of the “Elites” to know for sure.
But my suspicion is that it’s a mix of the natural high, the endorphins the mind releases as a pleasure chemical once the review is completed, and the social factor. Think of the way they move up, slowly going up the stream as the reviews pile on. Eventually, if they review enough places and receive enough praise, they may become one of the “Elite”. Not only do the “Elite” get the privilege of being called by that name, they also get exclusive invitations to events that are by invite only, they also get to monitor the boards and have “overseeing” privileges of the reviews section. They monitor groups and also host entire cities. If someone wants to join the “Elite” these people have to oversee new members as well as the “Elite” group parties.
So the real reason people love reviewing on these web sites, particularly Yelp, is not just an inflated sense of “self” achieved by getting this “Elite” status but also the social and personal growth implications of being promoted on these sites. It’s almost like a video game; kind of like achievements on Xbox Live or like those medals you get on Angry Birds with Friends or the “social” games on Facebook and all the app games. Yelp goes a step above and beyond these video games because it’s rewarding people for actually going to these places and actually reviewing them; kind of like a real world Xbox Live Achievements. A mix of adventure, ego, and socialization all rolled into one fell swoop of online victory. It gives its users a unique sense of privileges and esteem that is highly sought after.
What did people do before Yelp? It’s worth noting that prior to online reviews, folks had to consult a paper-and-ink guidebook—or flip through a magazine or newspaper—for a restaurant review. The guidebooks, however, were the gold standard. Their popularity can be traced back to the 19th century, coinciding neatly with the advent of improved transportation, an increased and more even distribution of private wealth, and international travel. Guidebooks received a huge boost between the two world wars—a period of unprecedented automobile-aided mobility in American society. Adventures in Good Eating, a 1936 guidebook title written by a traveling salesman named Duncan Hines, was the most popular example. During the postwar period, popular guidebooks included the series published by Eugene Fodor and Arthur Frommer. In more recent years, four guidebooks have cornered the restaurant and hotel review market: Mobil Guide (licensed to Forbes magazine in 2009), AAA, Michelin, and Zagat (purchased by Google in 2011).
Michelin and Zagat guidebooks are an interesting contrast to Yelp, not least because their focus on higher-end restaurants essentially restricts their reviews to a tiny minority of businesses. First published in France in 1900, Michelin was introduced to the United States as late as 2005. Over the years, Michelin has cultivated a strong mystique—its writings are known to have driven French chefs to suicide. Further, its exclusive reviews of the finest restaurants are written by professional reviewers whom Michelin employs and who visit restaurants anonymously to get information for their reviews.
Zagat usually reviews relatively higher-end restaurants. But it also reviews a lot more restaurants than Michelin does—and it does so with the help of a large number of volunteers. Launched in 1979 by a lawyer couple by the name of Tim and Nina Zagat, who couldn’t stand their day jobs and decided to create a guidebook company, Zagat offers numerical scores on food, prices, services and ambience. Its reviews are heavily edited, although short quotations from some reviewers are retained.
Yelp is a wholly different publishing animal from Michelin and Zagat. Two friends—Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons—who were software engineers founded the company in San Francisco in 2004 at PayPal and who had made a small fortune when eBay bought PayPal. The Yelp creation myth is that after he left PayPal, Stoppelman was looking for a physician but had no idea how to search for a good one. So he emailed friends, asking for a recommendation, and then placed their feedback on a public website for all to see. Thus was born an email recommendation/review system, reportedly developed at a cost of $1 million, which one of the cofounders of PayPal, Max Levchin, gave to Stoppelman as seed money.
The emailed review system revolving around groups of friends proved to be something of a flop. But it revealed something important to Stoppelman, who realized that people were writing reviews for the sheer fun of it. The next stop for Stoppelman was clear: Create a site that allows just about anybody to contribute reviews of any kind of business that has a street address, and the bigger the crowds of reviewers, the better.
Yelp reviews were initially limited only to San Francisco—probably a smart strategy, given that Stoppelman and his buddy from PayPal could test the company in one city instead of spreading the system out too thinly across a wider region, state—or states. And although Yelp reviews included a variety of businesses, restaurant reviews were by far the largest category.
It was clear from the start how Yelp was different from snobby Michelin or equally snooty Zagat. But that didn’t stop Stoppelman from emphasizing the distinction—and putting a bit of typically American entrepreneurial spin to it. “Yelp just democratize the reputation of a business,” he reportedly said in 2007, a year after Yelp had a million unique visitors a month. “Rather than a single arbiter of taste, it’s hundreds of people saying whether they like the business or not.”
That’s what crowdsourcing is all about of course, even if it’s not too different from the rule of the mob. And while Yelp’s crowdsourcing worked well in it home base of San Francisco, there appeared to be a sense in the company that if it wished to scale outside Fog City and attract more users, it would have to adopt a different strategy to get people to feed reviews to the Yelp machine. So, as Yelp expanded into large cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, it reportedly began paying people $1 per review. The practice of paying for reviews had been adopted by several of Yelp’s competitors at the time, including Judy’s Book, InsiderPages and Epinions.
But paying for reviews didn’t quite work out for Yelp. The company discovered fairly quickly that the paid reviews were often poorly written. In 2008, with about 4 million reviews under its belt (the figure would jump to more than 27 million by March 2012, when Yelp was active in 49 U.S. markets and 33 overseas), Yelp stopped paying reviewers, except in new markets where it needed to build basic level of content over a couple of weeks.
That’s when Yelp adopted a different strategy: It began to cultivate a core of reviewers who not only post reviews more frequently than others but tend to write reviews so engaging that they acquire a large number of online friends and fans. Yelp named this core group the “Elite Squad.”
Not only has Yelp’s Elite Squad been a vital part of the company’s expansion strategy, it has also been instrumental in addressing a crucial question that had been dogging Yelp: What happens when hundreds of (non-elite) Yelp reviews pile up on a single business—can readers make any sense of this information overload?
By focusing on selective—and qualitative—reviews by its Elite Squad, Yelp kept its users from being unduly overwhelmed, while avoiding criticism from them at the same time. And the company did this by pampering its elite corps of storm troopers in ways virtually unknown in the world of online marketing and advertising. Yelp’s elite got to periodically gather offline at cocktail parties and events centered on wine, costumes and art, in an attempt to get to know each other. The events are organized by Yelp community managers, who, in many cases are former members of the Elite Squad tasked with facilitating message-board discussions and boosting the egos of volunteer reviewers through comments about their reviews.
Kelly Stocker, a Senior Community Manager for Yelp in Austin, Texas, describes herself in her About Me profile as a “yelp evangelist, party planner, local business lover, KGSR DJ, karaoke fiend, social spider monkey.” On her Yelp page, Kelly identifies herself as a “Reverend,” evidently a reference to her role as evangelist for the company. She has been a member of the Yelp Elite consistently since 2009. “From A+ on my report cards to writing about bars. My parents are so proud,” reads a line under her featured photo, which shows her wearing a black lace dress, holding a gigantic jar of what looks like orange juice, her mouth open in an apparent exultation.
As of September 25, 2014, Kelly had 2,625 friends on Yelp and 1,310 reviews to her credit—106 of them so-called “First Reviews,” meaning they are the first reviews on Yelp of a particular business. She had offered 828 “Tips” (“This is a super fast dinner/lunch if you’re getting pho,” and “There can be a long line, so be prepared to wait”), which appear to have played no small role in earning her 421 in-house fans. Further, she had posted 5,701 “Local Photos” (the latest one shows a meat-based taco dribbled with an avocado-colored salsa) and submitted 1,052 events on behalf of various local businesses and organizations.
Kelly has received numerous compliments. No less than 2,994 people have thanked her, 1,262 have said she is “cool,” 659 have found her funny, and 651 “hot.” Not surprisingly, the things Kelly says she loves include: “Funny people, festivals, flip-flops, cheap sunglasses, glitter, red hair, dive bars, spontaneous traveling, costumes, cooking, reading constantly, singing often and tuft gloves.”
The list of things that Kelly loves is prominently featured on Yelp. Which raises the question: Why would an online organization devoted to the ostensibly dispassionate reviewing of businesses want to literally advertise the personal aspects of the lives of its elite reviewers?
The answer is that Yelp is not just a business-oriented website that caters to customers looking for the best deal or the best food in town. The truth is that Yelp is also a social networking site where its reviewers writings become the currency that allows them to meet strangers either online or offline.
Yelp undoubtedly owes its phenomenal success as an online business to this social networking strategy. How else would Yelp be able to solicit a greater number of reviews and attract more unique visitors than such formidable competitors as Chowhound, which also relied on user-generated content but did not offer any social rewards to those generating the content? Moreover, the metrics of Yelp’s reviews and UVs were reportedly far more successful than CitySearch, which followed the Michelin and Zagat philosophy of providing professionally written reviews of local businesses.
The social capital that comes with being a member of Yelp’s elite is undeniably why Yelp’ more plebian members keep slogging away on their reviews, hoping they’ll be invited to join the exclusive club some day.
Here’s how Ryan C., Yelp’s Community Manager in Orange County, California, wrote in November 2012 to invite Yelp member Vyvy “Batman” D. to become one of the company’s elite:
“Not to come off as a creep, but I’ve had my eye on you lately. In fact, the entire Yelp Elite Council has. You clearly embody the spirit of Yelp with your enthusiasm, positivity, constructive honesty and useful funny coolness, and we’d like to formally invite you to join the Yelp Elite Squad! As a member or the best and brightest on Yelp, you’ll be invited to exclusive parties, where you’ll rub elbows with some of our city’s most influential movers and shakers. Plus, you’ll get a snazzy badge on your profile so everyone can see you know what’s up!”
Not surprisingly, Vyvy D. rose to the occasion or fell for the bait—feel free to pick your metaphor. “I’m Yelp Elite, BITCHESSS!!!” she declared on her personal blog, adding: “I don’t think you understand how ecstatic I am … I’m so freaking excited.”
Other Yelp elite have been equally enthusiastic—without going overboard—about being accepted into the social club. Here’s how Weiward Girl describes her gradual evolution to elite status in a 2009 post:
“I Yelp. I’ve been doing it since October 2007. At first, I used Yelp. Our relationship was casual. There are so many great reviews and pictures from actual diners, people who share my love of good food and drinks, I searched and read and discovered great new eateries. As I dined around town, I was eager to write more reviews of my own, both good and bad. I wanted other diners to hear about my experiences. It became increasingly fun to get and give compliments on reviews, and I kept clicking the radio buttons to rate them: ‘useful, funny, cool.’ Soon, friend requests started showing up, and that’s when I realized: I’ve become a real Yelper! There was nothing stopping me from going all out now. The camaraderie felt real. All the regular Yelpers are really in the know about all things fun and tasty around the city. Before long, a Yelp ambassador sent me a message: ‘Would you like to become an elite Yelper?’ Boy, would I ever! I must have been doing something right to get such recognition so soon! Being an elite Yelper means a shiny new badge on my profile, and invitations to exclusive parties at the hottest spots in town! Just days after my promotion to the Yelp Elite status, I went to a party at a hip lounge. There were free-flowing vodka martinis. I was impressed. Yelp must be quite influential and have a generous budget to pulls this off! So many people welcomed me. They couldn’t wait to meet you!” the Yelp ambassador told me as soon as I entered. The music was loud. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with elite Yelpers. Cameras were flashing. Cocktail glasses were clinking. Everyone was laughing, hugging and having a good time. Nobody remembered it was a school night. I bet the lounge that hosted the party will be getting a lot more new business now that all the Yelp elites have been there. Good for them!”
- Alexa Internet Inc. commercial web traffic data.
- Business Times.
- Food in the Internet Age, by William Aspray, George Royer, Melissa G. Ocepek, 2013 Springer Briefs in Food, Health and Nutrition.
- A Social Strategy: How We Profit From Social Media, by Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Yelp Inc., Elite Event: Meet the Chef 7