The Rhetoric of the Digital Marketplace: Yelp

Reinhard Mueller

Locative Media, Social Media, Tools

yelp logo
Yelp logo

We all did it. We all used Yelp. If you want to find out, if this Italian restaurant is in fact a good choice for Valentine’s day, Yelp has an answer. Or if you are in a new city and don’t really know which bar or coffee shop to go to, Yelp knows! Or even when you are looking for a hotel or dentist in another country, Yelp reviewers have already been there and offer advice. Today, Yelp has become one of the most important websites on the internet with over 165 million monthly visitors and over 95 million reviews worldwide.

In 2004, the two former PayPal employees, Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons, founded Yelp upon the initial idea to publish answers to email questions asking for recommendations. But after this idea failed, they decided to publish reviews without a previous question. This was the idea for great success.

Check out this interview of Jeremy Stoppelman about the beginnings of Yelp:

Quickly growing beyond the limits of its San Francisco base, Yelp rejected offers by Google and Yahoo up to $1 billion and expanded to Europe in 2009, to Australia in 2011, and to Asia in 2012. Today, Yelp has a revenue of $550 million and 4,050 employers.

The founders wanted to offer with Yelp “help” just like the “Yellowpages of the 21st century.” Yelp helps us navigate virtually on the marketplace. But, from the perspective of digital rhetoric, what kind of communication does it facilitate? Which kind does it hinder or block?

For us costumers, it offers a great first orientation. But how trustful are these results, if anyone can just review anything? Yelp’s “filter algorithm” makes sure to exclude reviews which seems “suspicious.” Recent studies found that these are about 20% of all reviews.

However, there are 7 tips on how to keep yelp reviews from getting filtered out. And if you are a role-model Yelper by providing many “well-written reviews, high quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing off well with others,” you might even become one of “Yelp’s Elite Squad.”

Eric Cartman from cartoon show South Park. He is wearing a white T-Shirt with black writing that says: WARNING: YELP critic.

While big businesses are hardly affected by reviews, smaller businesses can hardly elude this new digital literacy. If your business is on Yelp, you are not even able to take it off from the list. Instead, to play the Yelp game, you can, first, “claim” your business and, second, pay $300-500 for basic features, such as being able to pick a favorite review to appear on the top of the page or to be ranked higher in industry listings.

And you can then maintain your page by responding to reviews or offer special deals, such as rewarding many costumer “check ins”. By making use of the “respond” feature, very bad reviews may then be changed again by the reviewer, when the business owner apologizes or offers some compensations. But — can those reviews then still be trusted, if businesses influence them? Can we trust Yelp altogether, if they make money mainly through selling sponsored listings and ad features to businesses so that they appear even on a competitor’s page? While Yelp has widely been accused of manipulating results, lawsuits have never been successful in providing evidence.

There is no final certitude that high-ranked businesses are actually good or that we can really trust reviewers. As such, digital rhetoric do not entirely change compared to pre-Yelp times: a highly-recommended restaurant is not necessarily good and an advertisement does not necessarily tell the truth. But Yelp accelerates our orienting process on the virtual marketplace, even and especially in unknown areas.

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