It’s no secret that there’s no love lost between Yelp and Google. They’re like Spain and Portugal in the 15th Century — rivals trying to carve up the local globe.
As you undoubtedly remember, Google tried unsuccessfully tried to buy Yelp in 2009. At the time there was a suggestion that Google might have been manipulated by Yelp. It was never clear which party ended the negotiations.
In 2011 Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman testified against Google at Senate hearings on internet competition. He complained that Google was indexing Yelp’s reviews content on Google local Places pages over Yelp’s objection. Yelp said that Google gave it a choice to permit use of Yelp reviews on local Places pages or leave the index entirely.
The FTC prohibited Mountain View from posing that “dilemma” going forward, as part of its anti-trust settlement with the company.
Google bought Zagat in 2011 to obtain the kind of reviews corpus that the company lost when the Yelp deal fell through. Since then Google has generally been “emulating” or “borrowing” from Yelp to enhance its local results and content.
One such example is the Google City Experts program, designed to generate a volume of “quality reviews” (not just star ratings). It also seeks to build a group of local content creators similar to the Yelp Elite Squad.
Google Local Carousel results dominate the page
In the category of supplanting Yelp is Google’s Local Carousel. It shifts attention away from traditional organic links on the search-results page, where Yelp has been very strong.
In the screenshot above the first organic result below the Carousel (and the ad) is a Yelp listing. While I’m sure Google didn’t create the Carousel specifically to obscure or bury Yelp, the practical impact is to draw attention from the rest of the page and thus Yelp’s content.
Test of local menus in Google Knowledge Graph context
On a smaller scale Google is also experimenting with showing “card-style” restaurant menus (above) in its Knowledge Graph area. While restaurants isn’t the only reason people visit Yelp it’s still a major traffic category for Yelp in particular and local search in general. Surfacing this type of structured menu data in search results also makes it less necessary to visit third party sites.
If Google provides satisfactory answers to common restaurant queries (i.e., reviews, hours and menus) it makes visiting Yelp less necessary — perhaps unnecessary.
Perhaps coincidentally today Yelp announced a major redesign of business profile pages to make them more visually dynamic and easier to read, with more information above the fold. But Yelp will need to do more to combat Google’s advances in local.
Transactions offers promise. Yelp has gotten deeper into scheduling and wants to allow more third parties, through its Yelp Platform, to turn the site into a booking engine. Payments may not be far behind.
As an aside, as Yelp moves further into booking and other kinds of transactions it can solicit reviews from users (as OpenTable, Hotels.com and Amazon do). In that way it could become a useful tool for SMBs to acquire reviews, which might change many SMBs’ attitudes toward the site.
The other front is mobile. That’s a partial ticket out of the Google SEO game for Yelp. The company said on its last earnings call that nearly 60% of its search queries were now coming from smartphones. As it continues to build its brand and consumer value proposition Yelp can emphasize its apps, which establish and unmediated relationship between Yelp and its users.
As more local queries migrate to mobile devices, Yelp can position itself as a primary destination. Google Maps (in particular on Android devices) remains a local juggernaut that is difficult to compete with. Depth of content and value-added features such as scheduling can deliver differentiation however.
Perhaps the larger question underlying all this is: what happens to everyone else?
What happens to the other third parties that are trying to be horizontal local search sites and directories? Unless they offer unique or deeper content, transactional capabilities, loyalty mechanisms or high levels of personalization, they risk being marginalized.
Yahoo could be a player in local again if it doesn’t simply follow a “me too” course. Facebook has enormous potential but hasn’t yet developed the right consumer experience. I don’t have high hopes for Microsoft. YP has a chance too but it will require good choices and skillful execution.
Let me know what you think. Can Yelp prevail over Google in local? And who else might compete successfully in a “horizontal” way?