Google has been copying Yelp’s approach to “social local” for some time now, with things like its Hotpot ratings/reviews service, the creation of “community managers” that work on the ground in several cities to increase awareness and usage of Google Places and several other things that I detailed on Search Engine Land a little while back.
But there’s one important area where Google is doing exactly the opposite of Yelp, and it’ll probably be the measure by which experts say Google has someday surpassed Yelp. What’s Google doing so differently than Yelp?
In one sentence: Google is incentivizing reviews at almost spam-like levels. Consider a recent event that Google hosted in Portland:
On June 6th, Google and a local arcade called Ground Kontrol announced a “special party” with free “food, drink and prizes provided by Google Places.”
This is important: The event was scheduled for June 22 — just 16 days after it was announced.
So, how did you get an invitation to this special party? Here’s how the announcement explains it:
The first 100 people who have at least 50 reviews of businesses on Places by 5pm PST on June 19th will get an invitation to our Game On! party for a free night of arcade games, with food and drink on Google Places.
In other words: If you review 50 businesses within 13 days, you get an invite to the party! You basically have to spam Google Places with reviews to meet that requirement, unless you’re some kind of Herculean local business shopper/visitor/reviewer!
But wait, there’s more! If you managed to go beyond 50 reviews in less than two weeks, you got extra prizes:
* 50+ reviews will grant you unlimited game play, appetizers, and 1 drink on Google.
* 100+ reviews will grant you unlimited game play, appetizers, up to 2 drinks on Google and a t-shirt.
* 200+ reviews will grant you unlimited game play, appetizers, up to 2 drinks on Google, a t-shirt, and a $15 gift certificate to Ground Kontrol (for future use).
Did it work? Well, Google wrote about the event on its own blog afterward, and said that 10 people reached the 200-review mark and got those extra bonuses listed above.
This Wouldn’t Fly on Yelp
Yelp takes a 180-degree opposite approach to reviews. Yelp lives in what I’ve called “a world of fairies and pixie dust” because it doesn’t even want local businesses to ask for or encourage reviews … and they have a specific policy against incentivizing reviews.
Yelp holds local events like the one Google did, Yelp has community reps and all that — heck, Yelp pretty much wrote the playbook on this kind of real world outreach. But Yelp, to my knowledge, doesn’t pre-condition attendance at its parties based on users posting a certain amount of reviews, nor does it give users prizes based on how many reviews they write.
Result? Review Counts are Meaningless
What’s the big deal? Well, aside from the possible pollution of Google Places with hundreds of Portland-area reviews that are less than stellar due to people trying to write 50+ reviews in a couple weeks … probably not much. And, to be fair, I have no idea what the quality of those reviews was; for all I know, those 10 people each wrote 200 excellent reviews. (And I suppose it’s also possible that some/all of the ten already had written 200+ reviews on Google Places.)
But what it does mean, though, is that, when Google starts bragging about how big its review corpus is and people start proclaiming Google the king of local reviews, we need to
- take into account the tactics that Google used to surpass Yelp, and
- ask ourselves if review counts really mean anything
Other than a nice headline now and then, I’m betting they won’t. Not when Google is giving free food, drinks and prizes to the users who can crank out the most reviews in short periods of time.