Why Yelp? Because Amateur Critics Have Won

Josh Oversky of Time magazine may lament the demise of the professional critic, but that train left the station a long time ago.

Amateur critics – whether worthy or not – have knocked the diadem off the heads of the professionals.  And while it might not fit all that well, the crown now rests on the heads of the beginners.  This goes for everything from restaurant reviews to literary criticism.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just a different thing.  Authority now won’t necessarily come from one person (although amateur critics with large followings will pack influence), but will be generated by consensus.

Review aggregation is the future.

Which brings us to Yelp.

The potential for Yelp is enormous as it combines user-generated reviews with location-based social networking.  Yelp – through it’s web site and via an excellent smart phone application – allows users to search based on where they are at the moment.  Using GPS technology, Yelp will provide you with relevant and local information at your fingertips.

So if I’m hungry for Mexican food while at work – Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA – I can simply type in “tacos” into my iPhone app.  Using a one-mile radius, Yelp gives me dozens of results, so I narrow the search to within 0.3 miles and Yelp serves me up three choices.  I only know one of them and it is ranked the lowest (2.5 stars out of a possible 5).  The rank is the aggregate of 43 reviews.

But the complaints for the restaurant are consistent: poor service and inconsistent food quality.  Have I been missing out on better tacos around my place of work?  It appears so as I peruse the review of the top ranked restaurant with 4 stars from an aggregate of 303 reviews.  Thanks to Yelp (and this little experiment), I’m now going to try a new restaurant next time I’m in the mood for tacos.

Yelp provides this type of insight into dry cleaners, auto repair shops, retailers, book stores, fitness clubs, bakeries, etc.  You name it and Yelp probably has the category.

And they provide this information for free.  You get the opinions of your neighbors and co-workers to the establishments in your neighborhood, city or town.  Why would you go to a bakery with 1 star if there is another around the corner with 4 stars?

Yelp also gives me other crucial information – directions, the address, a telephone number, photographs, price ranges, what type of attire, and even if it is friendly for children.

Huge value.

So while the Yelp reviews might not be as eloquent or as knowledgeable as those generated by a professional reviewer – I can trust the outcome in the aggregate.

If dozens of people warn me about the business ethics of an auto repair shop then why would I go there?  If dozens of people keep saying an Italian restaurant often serves the food at tepid temperatures you know what to expect if you decide to dine there.  And best yet, Yelp allows the restaurant and shop owners to reply to the reviews giving users even more perspective.

Yelp already has a user based of more than 26 million.  This number will continue to climb, especially as more people buy smart phones.  This is why Yelp and other similar services (Yahoo Local) are positioned to be the real winners in location-based social networking.

UPDATE: Yelpers savage my blog post on, of course, Yelp.

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