For users around the country (and increasingly across the globe), Yelp is an indispensable resource for finding places to eat and people to hire for a variety of services. We sat down with Shannon Eis, Yelp’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, to talk about the company’s commitment to its users and how that support extends all the way into the realm of the law. Stay tuned for an extended version of our conversation on our Air Quotes podcast later this month.
Q: Yelp has been a true stalwart of the Internet for many years. What has kept Yelp relevant for so many years? How does it stay ahead of competitors like Google Reviews or Twitter?
A: Having been a pretty regular user on the outside, seeing what it’s like on the inside is fascinating. There are two types of Yelp users: there are the people who come to us through search and then there are the people who create content that the people who come here through search are looking for. Obviously the goal is to convert as many of those from one side to the other.
But having been a user and then come inside to work at the company, I had no sense from the outside how important the user is. Every decision we make at Yelp—when it could be about revenue or traffic or all the other things that usually fuel a public company—it is about 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 should we make?
We don’t want to interrupt their search flow, we don’t want to put information in front of them that they didn’t ask for. It is a constant process here focusing on the user.
It’s not just the speed to information and a slick process. It’s about how we really make that experience about the user and not disruptive at all.
So I would say one part of it is the technology and design and product experience focusing on what’s best for the user. But the other part of it is community. I don’t think you have a sense as a Yelp user how big of a community you’re part of. We are, fingers crossed, in this quarter approaching our one hundred millionth review. That is a tremendous amount of content on a very robust platform that was one hundred percent generated by users.
And the way we look at them are people who took time out of their day to say something positive about a business. And the majority of our content is positive, 3 stars or higher. I know the more negative posts, written in irreverent tones, tend to get the 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 above others, it is this community commitment to freedom of speech and sharing experiences. Most of the people on the platform are doing that to promote a great business they found.
Q: I have seen negative reviews on Yelp that were actually informative to me, not just in a negative way. As long as a review is written well or informative, it doesn’t necessarily mean a 2 star review is such a deterrent. Have you seen that both, as a Yelp user and internally?
A: It’s interesting. Some businesses don’t want any negative feedback. Others take it with a grain of salt. Many businesses increasingly are starting to recognize that online platforms are critical for their customer engagement. So you see great businesses and all they are doing are using free tools—it’s not advertising—to respond to customer reviews. That kind of very authentic and direct engagement on the platform is critically important now and is going to be even more important for businesses.
We survey small business owners every year and we ask them what kind of digital tools they are using to promote their business. We’re seeing review platforms and social media, places where they can engage with their customers.
It will net so many returns later because it is in a public forum.
Q: As a user, if everything was always perfect, it feels less authentic.
A: Yes. And if you visit business profiles on Yelp, you can also see what the business’s reputation and response time has been in the past. This is available to everyone.
It shows you what has been the trend of their reviews, for example, going from all five stars to two stars. Not every user is going to go to this level of detail, but it is there. For example, I just had to hire a heating company and I did go to this level of detail to figure out how the business is trending.
It’s providing transparency in the platform so people can see both how they’re contributing and how a business is performing over time.
Q: Can you explain more about Yelp’s concept of “community first, consumer second, business third”?
A: The regulatory work that Yelp has to do to protect freedom of speech online has been my biggest “aha” moment since I’ve been here.
You now have this environment in 27 states where there are protections in place for consumer free speech online. It’s a little shocking to say that half this country does not have this protection in place for consumers online.
What that means is, for example in Massachusetts, business owners can sue a consumer who leaves them a negative review. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work constitutionally and it doesn’t work across the board.
So we have to do a lot of work to protect consumers. What happens if we end up with an economy and a nation that’s afraid to have an opinion online because freedom of speech doesn’t protect them there, even though we know that’s largely where communications and opinions are going?
So from our perspective, do we engage on this issue to protect consumers or do we let the business community chase them down and silence them? That’s a clear case. We absolutely have to take a position to protect the consumers.
It’s not about protecting the reviews or endorsing the reviews. It’s saying free speech online is very important and so we are leading that legislation on the federal level, so it will become a federal protection, not a state-by-state fight.
That’s one example of why a focus on the user is important.
But we’re definitely connected to the business community. We have an entire business outreach team who are out there all the time working in the business community. These are not teams selling advertising, these are teams telling business owners that this reputation economy is not going away and helping them deal with this new reality and grow their business.