I sat down with Shannon Eis, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Yelp, to talk about the ways the online ratings engine is making the user its top priority when making decisions, and how that commitment extends all the way to fighting local legislation on behalf of their user base. Take a listen for more insights into how Yelp became the Internet’s go-to destination for reviews on restaurants, small businesses, and all things local.

Podcast Transcription

Matt Hansen: Hi. You’re listening to Air Quotes, the podcast on media, marketing and business from the Cardwell Beach Network. I’m Matt Hansen. Today, I’m joined by my colleague, Dave Donars to talk to Shannon Eis, the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Yelp.

Matt: Obviously, you know, Yelp has existed for quite some time. You know, it’s been a–probably a real bellwether and a barometer of the internet really in many ways. What do you think has kept Yelp relevant for as many years as it’s been? How does it stay ahead of, you know, competitors like Google Reviews or even Twitter?

Shannon Eis: You know, being a avid Yelper and a huge fan girl, which is why I chased them down and forced them to hire me, is seeing what it’s like on the inside having been a pre, you know, regular user on the outside. And our users look like two things. There’s the–people who come to search, right, and there’s people who offer great content that the people have come here to search or looking for. And being obviously the goal is to convert as many of those from one time to the other. But to be a user on either on those camps and then to come inside and work at the company, you have no sense from the outside how important the user is. Every decision we make at Yelp when it should be, you know, potentially about revenue or traffic or all the other things that, you know, usually fuel a public company. It is about focus on the user. It is a mantra that is literally uttered here hundreds of times a day. If we are focusing on the user, what decision will we make? We don’t want to interrupt their search flow. We don’t want to put information in front of them they didn’t ask for. I mean it is a constant process here on focusing on the user. Such as speed information and a flick process it’s how do we make that experience really about the user and not disruptive at all?

So we’d say some of it is just that technology and design and the product experience that is has to be about the user, what’s best for the user. And then honestly, the other part is the community. I don’t think you have a sense of very much of the Yelp user on how big of a community you’re a part of. We are, fingers crossed, approaching in this quarter our 100 millionth review. That is a tremendous amount of content on a very robust platform that was a hundred percent generated by users. And the way we think about them are people who took time out of their day to say something positive about the business. And the majority of the content is positive. Resource are higher. And it is that some of the negative reviews are those written in the most irreverent tones tend to most media attention but they are the minority on the site.

The majority of the content is positive. So when you think about what puts us in a space above others, it’s this community commitment to freedom of speech. Sharing their opinions, sharing their experiences and most of–most people in the platform are doing that to promote a great business they found. Honestly, it’s three, four, five stars. They wanted people to know that business is doing some great things. Yeah, there’s some constructive feedback in there and there’s always going to be the occasionally way of the reservation, one-star reviews. But some of the one-star reviews are also super important. Businesses learn from those opportunities as well. But, you know, the differentiating thing hands down is our user community by far. I mean, I’d love to say it’s product and design and our engineers. But let me–hear me say that and I do think we have a really, really special experience that isn’t compromised by every trend of the moment. But it’s 100% our user community.

Dave Donars: And I–before we dive into that because I really want to explore the user community more. I do–while we have you on the phone, well I want to talk about those reviews because I have seen, you know, negative reviews throughout time that were actually informative to me, and not just in a negative way. Certain people care about certain things, and other things aren’t such a big deal to other people. And, you know, it’s–I think with Yelp, and to an extent Amazon, it’s such a good example of that that review, as long as it’s written well and informative about what’s happening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a two-star review is a negative thing to deter someone away from something. You know, if they read the review and they find like, “Oh, I still like that stuff,” I don’t know if it’s such a deterrent. Have you–have you seen that throughout your history as a Yelper before joining or internally?

Shannon Eis: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. Some–you know, some businesses don’t want any negative feedback. Others, you know, take it with a grain salt and they’ll look at it and be like, you know, bad day, bad experience. Many business increasingly are starting to recognize that online platforms like Yelp are critically important for their customer engagement. So you see some great businesses and all they’re doing is using free tools that’s non-advertising to respond to their customer reviews. “Hey, you know what, thanks for taking time to leave the review. Sorry, it doesn’t sound like we delivered. You know, awesomely I’m not experienced. I’m going to look at some of those things you said and please give us another chance.” That kind of very authentic but direct engagement on the platform, you can do it publicly for everybody to see, which honestly users love seeing that a business owner’s engaging like that. Or you can do it in a private message and it’s all free.

That’s really going to be–it’s critically important now and it’s going to get even more important for businesses but they’re still making that shift for, you know, “Should I be advertising in the yellow pages? Should I be advertising these other things when really as we continue to look at–we survey business owners every year and we did one this year, which I can send you a link to our small business survey, and we’re asking them, “What kind of digital tools are you using to just engage your business or even market it?” And you’re very much looking at review platform, social media where they can directly engage with customers. So I think, to your point, businesses that will take the time, and we say it honestly it takes five to ten minutes a day, to go online and see what’s happening with your brand and your reputation online and spend a couple of minutes focusing on that and then it will net so many returns later because it’s in a public form. But yeah, I think the positive reviews are great but, you know, a negative review here and there is a little bit elevated I think if people on authentic look at what doing business with you would be like.

Dave Donars: And myself just as a user, I think that if everything always had the four-star reviews, if everything was always perfect, it feels less authentic in so many ways. It doesn’t feel real. It feels assertive a little bit.

Shannon Eis: Yeah. And I think that there’s a couple of things about that. So if you guys have, you know, Yelp up, you can pull up any business and right next to the business listing. And I’m just going to put my shoe guy in here. You will these dots that show you what the business’ reputation and response has looked like overtime. This is available to everybody. So click on any business page and right underneath the name, there’s this button that says, “Details” and this shows you what it has been the trend for the last two to three years with–they’ve been in Yelp of their reviews. So you can see, “Hey, they started out strong five stars, but now, they’re two stars. Let me go look at some of those reviews and see what’s happening.”

And this is just, not every user is going to go to this level. I just had to hire a heating company, find a new orthodontist because I just moved here and a couple of other house things. And I did go to this level of detail to figure out, you know, how is the business trending and have there been excellent flows or some consistency. Users can also do this about themselves. They now can, in their own profile, click through the same detail flow and find out what is their review trend. And I’m very interested, you know, “Hey, I had a two-star streak and I need to work on my attitude.” Or, “Am I–you know, am I having like a total run with a bunch of five-star businesses?” So it’s providing that kind of transparency in the platform so that people can see how they’re contributing and how the business is performing overtime regardless of the current review that we’re looking at.

Dave Donars: That’s great. Thank you. I mean, that’s–I really do not think we could have ever arranged that thought. That’s perfect. Thank you.

But it really leads right into that that’s like in portion and I know they’ve had some–got to do forehand about the community first, the consumer second, and the business third. Can you explain a little bit about that? How–what is a community if it’s not the combination of consumers and businesses? Like what is that thread? What that is that cultural through point there?

Shannon Eis: Yeah. There are a few things to look at there. I wish it was that easy. Some of the activity and regulatory work that Yelp has to do to protect freedom of speech online, it’s one–my biggest aha moment since I’ve been here. You now have this environment and that is 27 states have what’s in place called an anti-SLAPP regulation. And this–but that means the rest of the states do not. And that means that there are protections in place to protect consumer free speech online. It’s a little shocking to say that almost half of this country does not have this protection for consumers online. And what that means is, Massachusetts as an example, business owners can sue a consumer who leaves them a negative review. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t constitutionally and it doesn’t work across the board.

And so we have to do a lot of work to protect consumers or what happens if we end up with an economy and nation that’s afraid to have an opinion online because the freedom of speech doesn’t protect them there when we know that largely that’s where all communications and opinions are going. And so from our perspective when you look at, do we engage on those issues to protect consumers or do we not and that we let the business community just chase them down and silence them. That’s a clear–that’s a clear case on when we absolutely have to take the position to protect the consumers. Not protect the reviews, not endorse the reviews. But hey, free speech online, regardless of the platform, very important. And so we are leading that legislation as on the federal level so that it will become a federal protection, and not just a state by state fight where if you’re a consumer and you live in one of these states and you don’t even know you don’t have consumer protections, next thing you know, you’re slapped with a local lawsuit by a roofing company that, you know, didn’t serve you well and you let people know about it to protect other people. You shouldn’t be served a lawsuit for that kind of stuff. And so we are–we are chasing federal protection so that we don’t have to go state by state to figure out which consumers are protected and others aren’t. That’s one example of why a focus on the user is important.

But there are, you know, other things and we’re definitely connected to the business community. We do a lot of events. We do a lot of community outreach, business outreach. We have an entire team here on business outreach who are out there all the time working with these communities. “Hey, don’t fear Yelp. Don’t fear online review. Here’s the right way to engage. These are not teams that are selling and advertising. These are teams that are just saying, ‘Hey, this sort of feedback economy, reputation economy, it is the real deal when it’s not going away. So how do you start to chip away at this new reality in running your business?’” This is a great group of really pragmatic people. They speak a lot of different vertical industry events for national association of realtors, national association of car dealership. And how do we help you guys understand the right way to engage here.

And it’s really starting to pick up steam. I’m super proud of this team. They’re on the road constantly because it’s–the only way to reach small business owners is to be really in their backyard. And so that’s what they’re doing. And we’re seeing some momentum and we’ve–we’re seeing a lot of good feedback from the business community saying, “Hey, I hear you. We’re on board now. Here’s what your platform is doing well for us. Here’s what it’s not allowing us to do. We have a big group of these small business owners who are part of an advisory council that expands and changes every year to help us develop better product for them and better engagement tools with our customers. And we’re getting so much smarter because they’re helping us.” So we–it’s not to say we sacrifice business owners to focus on the user, but we definitely recognize the community as a hybrid of both. But in terms of how we develop the product and how we really evaluate content, it is sort of a user-drive, community-driven platform.

Dave Donars: I think that–first of all, before you answered that, I had no idea how to discern that and I thought that was an amazing answer. Thank you. Like that actually gives a lot–it gives such clarity into what this is. And I think when you’re talking about these, because we’ve got, you know, kind of two questions and we wanted to be very, very sensitive to your time. But when you’re talking about like those first amendment rights and some of the other fights that you guys are putting forward, I think there’s two parts of this question. One is, you guys have entered a fore way into a lot of other areas as well with, you know, things that can be more heated like gun control and, you know, gay marriage and things like that. Is that part of the ethos of the company? And just the second part of that is does Yelp tackle that alone or are you working with other businesses and community members? And how does that play out? So I guess it’s two loaded questions quickly.

Shannon Eis: You know, I love that question and that–one of the recent is the Indiana discrimination bill that came out shortly after I joined Yelp. And so I get this thing from Jeremy that’s like, “Hey, we need to make a statement on this.” Like, “Really? We’re–Yelp has a statement on Indiana introducing discrimination bill?” He’s like, “We do business in Indiana. We have users in Indiana. There’s a community there and they deserve better. So I’m going to write something and we’re going to–we’re going to do, you know–we’re going to do this.” And so he worked with our, so obviously public policy team who had their finger more in the pulse of the law than I did. And that was just I would was gut–pure gut instinct. Discrimination of this kind is intolerable for Yelp as a brand and for, you know, our leaders and our community. And so, you know, that would sort of wake up and, you know, hold–strapped into the roller coaster kind of day and that I was super proud. And so, we went out strong and we did, you know, a letter from Jeremy to the Governor of Indiana. And within 24 hours, an organization of tech companies had just come up right behind it and so with–you know, everything from Tim Cook to Zuckerberg and sort of the whole community went at it. And we all have users there, we all have a community there and we have to shut this down in Indiana or it will happen everywhere and then we can’t protect the community of users around the country.

So it was an isolated incident that I was super impressed to see how the–how–and not just the valet but the business community at large stepped in and said, “We can’t allow this to happen. It sends the wrong signal. It takes us back decades,” and so a lot of other folks did a similar activity. So I would love to say that we have the strategic roadmap and discrimination is on it and–but that’s not the case. What is at the core of Yelp is a massive commitment to diversity, you know, hiring a truly acceptance and welcoming an inclusive environment which are a lot of PR words that a lot of people use when they describe their company. It is the absolute backbone of this company. It’s one of the most diverse places I’ve ever been. And so when you see something threatened that, it was just instinct to say, “Nope. No. Not on our watch.” So I think from a sort of a social mission standpoint, we have things that we stand for when we see things happening publicly. I think Jeremy and Yelp as a brand feel very confident stepping inside of that. And there was not a part of your question I didn’t answer. Sorry.

Dave Donars: No. You’ve actually fully answered it because it was about other companies that joined you when you’re kind of going alone. And I think you encapsulated it really well that you’re kind of leading this charges sometimes but it’s very easy to find a lot of other applicants within your business management.

Shannon Eis: We look at some of the things like this gag clause bill, it’s called the Consumer Review Freedom Act. You can find it online and we’re hoping for the final decision from the Senate in the next couple of weeks. This is a bill that does involve some others now. We are definitely leaning the charge with senators soon. But definitely other TripAdvisor and others in there and what this is designed to protect from. Again another thing consumers don’t know about, many businesses now when you start a receipt particularly at hotels and other entities, they insert a very brief gag clause that says in very short script if you leave a negative review of your experience here, we’re going to fine you. And most often the fine is around $500 and they already have your credit card. You don’t know this. You’re signing a receipt, you’re running out the door. You’re, you know, doing a thing and you don’t even know you’ve just signed a contract that completely strips you of your first amendment right. So that’s a gag clause. It is absolutely not acceptable. And other businesses do this too. Service industries do this. So that’s another example of regular reaction that we have to be very, very active inside. And there are other companies that are a part of that effort as well.

Dave Donars: I want to jump just very quickly to the question about–because I think myself and a lot of the team here, we–I mean, I depend on Yelp being in New York City so much. And then just kind of some of the dispute with Google about the ranking priorities and not–we’re not taking which we heard about–anything about, you know, controversy but it’s much more about the asset that you guys have as a user base and, you know, what that is versus, you know, trying to do something for ranking for advertising purposes. And I don’t know if you can speak to that at all.

Shannon Eis: Yeah. I can’t go into too much on Google mostly because it’s an incredibly complicated layered issue and a lot of history.

Dave Donars: Okay.

Shannon Eis: To summarize it is when consumers used to go to Google to search, they type in words and they would get the highest ranked organic results from the entire web. Google is a very profitable business, obviously and it has its own product it spelled to or designed to be competitive to others out there, whether that’s TripAdvisor or Yelp or ZocDoc or, you know, anybody in the shopping category honestly. So now, what Google is is a bit of a turn style that has a very strong directive path to a Google product. So when you type in, “Shoe repair in, you know, Millbrae, California,” what Google is now doing is sending you into that turn style and sending you to their own page which has inferior content, if any, and not as much sort of at all organic search ranking. But they have you now, right? And they have your traffic and they–and they also know assumptively what it is you’re looking for so you would land on, in that case, a Google Plus page which we all know it’s not the same as what a Yelp page search would look like.

But so, that’s just an example of what’s happening. Consumers used to have through Google, which owns 90 plus percent of all search, access the entirety of the web with the highest ranked organic search as other web users have voted in. And now what you primarily are getting especially in mobile is Google’s own preferenced products and assets. And so that’s-at the top line, that’s very much what we’re–what we’re focused on that doesn’t work. It is completely anti-competitive. It’s–and most importantly, it is not in the interest of the user and so that’s where–that’s where the argument sort of–it’s got a little bit of that search ranking in there that’s more of a mechanical component part to the challenge. But the bigger challenge is, Google preferencing its own products and assets over those that are more relevant and more usable to an actual user.

Dave Donars: And I think that that’s a great wrap out question is just about the overall value of making sure that the focus is on the user over anything else. If you can speak to that for a few words because, you know, our company has found it and one of the reasons we reach out to you is for– with Yelp is that extreme emphasis on always making sure that users are having the best experience possible. And that there can’t be much done in terms of your business that doesn’t try to resolve their issues, so I don’t know if you have any thoughts.

Shannon Eis: Yeah. I mean, not specific to Google but I think, you know, if our…

Dave Donars: Oh, no, no, no, no. I just mean in general. Like to…

Shannon Eis: Yeah.

Dave Donars: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Not…

Shannon Eis: I mean, it’s our true north and I–I mean, I see it in so many small ways here every day. It’s just part of the leadership team decisions that you it would take like weeks to sort of gather insights and data. When your true north is that, you know, what’s the right thing to do for users here, you know, everything just becomes more crystal clear. We still have to run a business. We still have to strive for profitable. We still have to maintain thousands of jobs around the world of people building and sustaining a platform that people want to use. So that’s not to say that they business mechanics aren’t critically important. But when your true north is defined and you’ve let everybody know what it is, these things can be a little bit easier. So in terms of, you know, how that works or when it’s challenged, I know how much of our perspective or something to share in that point but I think for us, that focus on the user and that absolute commitment to the community, the Yelp community is the reason we are different. We built Yelp literally one city at a time.

So where you saw other competitors come into the market and quickly say, “Okay, we’re going to scale this massively,” that’s not how Yelp was built. If it’s built in San Francisco, we spent years building. It’s user community who drove the content in San Francisco. And then after a year, they said, “We think we got this model right. We’re going to pick it up and put it down in Chicago.” Several years building the Chicago community, one user at a time, one business on the platform at a time. “Oh, this seems to be working. Let’s try and tackle New York.” That is literally how Yelp was built. There was never a button pushed that said, “All right, these 12 markets are online today, go content, go.” We built the community and the content and then sort of unleashed the pages and unleashed the fight of those markets, if that makes sense. Pulled back the curtain if you will. And so that approach to knowing local better than anybody, because we have boots on the ground in every single market, that is what the difference is from some of the folks who’ve come into the category. That’s the big difference obviously from Google Plus is you got to know locally, you got to know, “Well, why Cleveland is super, super different than Cincinnati,” and you got these people on the ground who can help to still that for all the users. So that’s I think one of the biggest differences and I think that’s what we’ll just continue to propel of is, you know, we talk about Yelp and others describe Yelp as a local layer of the internet. We have over a hundred thousand developers using Yelp inside their apps, inside their sites, inside their programs as their local layer of content and local search component, and that–I think that speaks volumes.

Dave Donars: Shannon, I think it’s such a great place to end our conversation. You know, it’s been such a fantastic conversation for us. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it. We really appreciate it.

Shannon Eis: Thanks, guys. Well, have…

Dave Donars: Yeah.

Shannon Eis: Thanks for reaching out. And if you have anything follow up or if I rambled on something you want clarity on, just let me know.

Dave Donars: This so far hit our expectations. I truly appreciate all the time you put into this. Thank you very much.

Shannon Eis: Happy to help. Thanks, guys. Have a great weekend. Stay warm.

Dave Donars: Thank you. Have a good one. Bye-bye.

Matt Hansen: Thanks for listening to Air Quotes, the flagship podcast of the Cardwell Beach Network. Hope you’ll join us next time.