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The Ears Have It: How Yelp!, Which Launched This Week, Could Change Both Local Searching and Local Business Forever

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

The Internet, it turns out, is mainly about searching and yakking. We want to find information or communicate with our friends through e-mail and chat. But while yakking is by definition personal and intimate, searching typically isn't, because its strength has always been seen in indexing billions of web pages, not just those from this morning or those that matter to the folks in Swifton, Arkansas. This fact has not been lost on the big search engines, and they are all doing their best to add some form of local searching. And as Silicon Valley is wont to do, this need has also attracted capital and startups, one of which -- Yelp! -- went live just this week and is the topic of this column. If we are to believe its founder, Yelp! can find any information you need, however localized and prosaic, and find it fast. The only question is whether it will also annoy us to death.

Yelp! is the first independent product from PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, and is aimed at helping you find a great housecleaner or plumber, though I suppose it would be equally good at finding Faberge eggs and drug dealers. Rather than indexing the Web, then searching that index for hints at correct answers, Yelp! just comes right out and asks people for their opinions and does so in an organized and automated way. At best, Yelp! charms its way to the truth. At worst, it nags.

"Yelp! is a simple online tool for people to ask their friends for a quick help in finding restaurants, dry-cleaners, and any other local business," says Max, whom I have to tell you is a friend of mine though I am in no way associated with any of his businesses. "This is already exactly what happens when you ask friends for help via email, all we've done is taken it to an entirely new level. The process is made much more effective by adding friends of friends into the mix, and much more convenient with features that enable faster, more complete responses, caching previous answers, and making the whole process very 'single-click.' What we are doing to the 'hey, does anyone know a good...'-type emails is the same thing Evite did to email party invites."

Here's how Yelp! works. Go to the web site (it's in this week's links, but I'll just bet you can guess the URL without even looking) and sign up for the service. Tell it what you are looking for (a plumber), put the need in some context (for my broken Jacuzzi bathtub) and give it a location (Charleston, SC). Then Yelp! expects you to tell it the e-mail addresses of a couple people whom you would contact with the question yourself if this service didn't exist. That's all. Then Yelp! sends e-mails to the folks you have listed along with any other people in its database who are in the same geographical area and/or have expressed opinions on similar queries. Part of what Yelp! does, too, is to ask these people if they can recommend yet another person who might better know the answer. Then Yelp! monitors and compiles the responses and makes some effort to get back to those who don't reply. Eventually, a list of resources is sent back to the original questioner along with information gleaned from other databases about how to reach these people and maybe even how to be a better-informed consumer.

Think about it. If all of us are really just six degrees away from Kevin Bacon, then Yelp! -- possibly on the basis of just users generated by reading this column -- can quickly discern a social network containing tens of thousands of nodes. If it works as advertised, in a few weeks that network will contain tens of millions of nodes and Yelp! will be unstoppable, having reached critical mass the exact way PayPal did only in one tenth the time. I write from time to time about the advantage of being an early player in some product space and the advantage of being a second player that can capitalize on the failings of the first, but this viral effect transcends both without raising a sweat. If Yelp! works well and doesn't piss-off too many people, it could come to dominate local searching in weeks. Yahoo! and Google, both of which are putting big bucks into local searching, haven't constructed their services in a way that leverages viral marketing, so it is probably too late for both of them.

At least that's the plan.

And it is a market worth pursuing, not just because people will always need plumbers and fine lingerie shops, but because various pundits estimate local service advertising (mainly the Yellow Pages) at $16 to 22 billion per year right now in the U.S. and growing nicely. I'm sure Yelp! will find a way to grab some of that money, probably in Googlesque paid placements.

But there is something about this idea of local searching that I fear people will miss, and that's the fact that it enables good service to count against good advertising. The general trend in local business development has been the proliferation of branded chains, and decimation of the local, unbranded treasures. Charleston has a fine lingerie shop on King Street, but just down the block looms a much larger Victoria's Secret. Relying mostly on word-of-mouth, local restaurants, plumbers and mechanics cannot afford more than a small-print mention in print or online listings. Yelp! or something like it might blunt this insidious trend.

"The long-term vision for Yelp! is changing the process of finding small business locally," says Max. "If you want to find out what your local friends (and their friends) consider the best Saturday morning coffee in the Mission, or a cheap and thorough cleaning person in SOHO, a quick ping through Yelp! is all you need. If you want to know where the nearest McD's is, I am sure you know what to do."

The risk here is the same as any social networking product. I get several Plaxo information requests per day, and don't generally respond because I feel they are too intrusive. But maybe I've been wrong. Maybe the network effect of a Plaxo for me, a guy who WANTS to be found, is so much more than the costs of intrusion. I'm leaning that way.

As for Yelp!, that's a lot of automated e-mail going back and forth, most of it nagging someone who never volunteered to give up their secret to finding a great cleaning lady. I just hope the technique won't be perceived as overkill given the mundaneness of the subject matter. "Maybe you should start out by searching for organ donations," I told Max.

Now to the name, Yelp! Most people my age or older will remember that President Lyndon Johnson had a pair of beagle dogs named Him and Her that he once picked up by their ears for White House photographers, causing the dogs to yelp and creating an animal rights furor, if such a thing was even possible in 1965. Johnson, narcissist to the core, explained: "A yelp is not a sound of pain, a yelp is a sound of joy."

We'll see.

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