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Wining and dining ‘Yelpers’

5 June 2009 2,974 views 4 Comments

Wanted to share a story in the print edition of today’s Austin Business Journal on the power of online reviews in the food scene. I spoke to reporter Christopher Calnan for the story to give background on the awesome Austin food blogger community.


Wining and dining ‘Yelpers’

The value of getting bloggers behind you

by Christopher Calnan ABJ Staff


Local software executive Jack Newton was one of 40 elite Yelpers at Max’s Wine Dive last month. He joined Yelp about three years ago.

It was only 5:30 p.m. on a recent Monday, and Max’s Wine Dive was already packed.

The newly opened wine bar in downtown Austin was hosting a private party for a group of 160 residents who could have a dramatic effect on business. The partygoers were frequent writers for the Web site yelp.com, which lists customer reviews of businesses such as clubs and restaurants.

The writers, which Yelp calls elite Yelpers, were being wooed with free wine and appetizers because the owners of Max’s recognize the power of viral marketing in the Internet age. Specifically, making a good impression on a Yelper who subsequently posts flattering comments on the Web site reaches thousands of potential customers.

Max’s had already hosted a pre-opening party for prominent bloggers,

Austin-area foodies who operate their own Web sites that feature restaurant reviews.

The popularity of Web-based tools such as blogs and customer-review Web sites has increased dramatically during the last 18 months, said Jonathan Horowitz, vice president of marketing and communications for Max’s parent company, Houston-based Lasco Enterprises LLC.

“It’s a significant segment of the market now that needs to be addressed because they’re so influential,” he said.

How influential?

Max’s has a full-time employee whose sole duty is to monitor what is posted on the Internet about the company’s five restaurants in Texas.

Yelp was started in San Francisco in 2004 by two former PayPal employees. Its chief competition is California-based IAC/InterActiveCorp’s Citysearch, which launched in 1995.

Austin-based Bazaarvoice Inc., founded in 2005, enables businesses to operate their own online communities that include customer reviews of products.

Although online reviews are an efficient method of giving voice to the masses, they also present the problem of accountability. Web site operators are faced with determining the motives and credibility of review posters. For example, competitors can surreptitiously write unflattering reviews to boost the standing of their own businesses.

In April, Yelp officials revealed that, for the first time, they were allowing business owners to directly reply to user reviews with their own posts.

Matthew Lees, vice president of the Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group, praised the decision — as long as the online dialogue doesn’t turn combative.

“I think it’s a rather exciting move,” Lees said. “I think it’s better to have inclusive conversation.”

Austin resident Jodi Bart, who launched her Tasty Touring restaurant blog in July 2008, said the city has a core group of 20 to 30 food bloggers who are invited to a couple business-sponsored events each week.

Austin-based software industry executive Jack Newton was one of the 40 elite Yelpers at Max’s Wine Dive last month. He said he joined Yelp more than three years ago and has posted more than 100 reviews.

During that time, Yelp’s influence has grown in proportion to the size of its community, Newton said.

“There’s an undeniable force that Yelp possesses now compared with three years ago,” he said. “It’s a channel that businesses can use to help them succeed.”

ccalnan@bizjournals.com | (512) 494-2524

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  • Julia

    So true, and the responses from the restaurant owners when there have been extreme mixed reviews on Yelp are actually helpful sometimes. We LOVE your blog (linked it from ours littleaustinite.com) and others that bring light to local eats, but so many times the details that are important to families with younger children are left out of the reviews. Sure it is nice to know whether the food and service were exceptional or less than, but can we take our kids to whatever establishment for the rare treats of dining out with screaming toddlers? We're utilizing the web 2.0 format to reach a segment that isn't always addressed so same concept, specific target audience.

  • Steve Basile

    Yelp reviews are most often quite balanced. The extremes can often be ignored, like the figure skating scores from the French judge :-) If you look at the total reviews for a business, factor in the number of reviews logged by each reviewer, and the number of people who follow their reviews (Yelp "friends") you get a very accurate depiction of what a business does well, or does poorly. Our pub monitors internet mentions very closely, and follows up on every blog post or review we observe.

  • amber demure

    As one of those in attendance at the Max's event I can say in a quite biased way that I absolutely love Yelp. I like reading multiple people's opinions and takes on a place before going because quite simply, the reasons I love a place aren't necessarily why someone else loves it, and it's fun to see people that review places you like with similar opinions to your own, then look up their profile and see what they like and find more places up your alley. The variety of people and opinions makes it such a great resource.

  • Anonymous

    Way to go, douchbags!