Online communities have a tough time getting started. There is a chicken and egg problem. Who wants to join a community that doesn’t exist? To solve this dilemma, Yelp’s CEO openly admits that early on the company decided to pay reviewers and now pays “community managers” in major cities. A second founding decision was to focus on getting the most reviews possible with its user rewards system.
Yelp’s founding community in any city is those who are willing to contribute reviews for low pay (i’m assuming rates did not attract top writers and bloggers…because it didn’t). For example, for many moderate and expensive restaurants, reviews often cite discounted Restaurant Week specials. Yelp is now challenged with broadening its set of active contributors in order to get broadly applicable content for the larger audience it is attracting.
The second original decision founders made was to encourage the community to review often. Online Karma awards are given for Firsts, and users compete to see who can have the most reviews or Firsts. As the community prefers to be heard rather than rated, Yelp accepts reviews about old meals or reviews that focus on the circumstances of the meal. Sadly, this has led to a proliferation of low quality reviews for restaurants, a category where one size does NOT fit all.
I think Yelp has a lot of potential (17 million unique visitors a month is already impressive), but right now the main feature that helps me is the mashup of google maps, yellow pages, and pictures.