Yelp's Recent Redesign & What It Means

03 June 2014

Since I moved to New York, I've been a fairly avid Yelp user. It's my go-to reference for any kind of restaurant decision, and I've written reviews as a way to remember all the great memories I've had in the city.

Recently, Yelp released a significant redesign of their business pages, which has interesting implications about the product. Based on my experience as a user and the recent changes, here are some high-level thoughts:

Foodie Central

Yelp is most known for being a restaurant review site, but it tries to be a source of ratings about any kind of physical, local business. If you didn't know that Yelp had reviews outside of restaurants or bars, don't be surprised. This breadth of content isn't very prominently advertised, and Yelp doesn't have as many reviews for other categories of businesses. The most-reviewed restaurant in New York City has over 5,800 reviews (fun fact: it's Ippudo, a popular ramen shop; 2nd place is Joe's Shanghai with 2,500 reviews), but I've yet to find another business category where the most-reviewed business has over 1,000 reviews.

There are many reasons why restaurants would be a more popularly-reviewed type of business than others - "foodie" culture is on the rise, users can reasonably visit more different restaurants in a period of time than other businesses, and there's some appeal to a "catch 'em all" attitude towards trying new restaurants or bars.

Whatever the reason, though, the new redesign definitely favors restaurants for one major reason: the emphasis given to photos. The redesign not only pushes beautiful, large thumbnails at the top of the page, but also scattered throughout the reviews. Scrolling down the page, the text of the individual reviews blends together in a wall of words, but the thumbnails attached to the reviews really stick out.

Yelp's restaurant pages benefit more from this redesign because food lends itself to photography better than most business categories - compare, for example, the photos at Ippudo to the photos at a locksmith, a dentist's office, or a spa (these were all businesses on my front page of Yelp). Pictures of dishes at a restaurant are informative, tempting, and somewhat aspirational - you, too, can come to this restaurant and get this amazing-looking burger. Moreover, foodies love taking pictures of their food, so there is no shortage of content.

You might even think that this change makes sense - since restaurants and bars represent one of Yelp's biggest use cases, maybe their business pages should focus on giving the best experience possible for those businesses. But this new redesign doesn't seem to make it any easier for Yelp to tackle other industries.

Neglecting the Casual Reviewer

With the shift of focus to photos, the new business page favors those reviews with photos over text-only reviews. To me, this sets off a mental red flag: what's going to happen with all that text in the long run?

I've always experienced a dichotomy in my own Yelp experience. I write reviews, but as a consumer of Yelp ratings, I rarely look at specific reviews. I mostly just want to know the aggregate star rating, some objective business information (e.g. phone number, hours of operation), and the review highlights to get a sense of popular dishes.

The more reviews Yelp gets for a business, the less emphasis it can place on any individual review. A very popular restaurant on Yelp can have thousands of reviews, but most of the aggregate time that users spent writing those reviews will go to waste. Nobody is going to go through and read thousands of reviews for one restaurant.

The new business page design breaks up the "wall of text" feeling from many reviews by emphasizing thumbnails attached to a review. Scrolling down each page, there are 40 reviews piled on top of each other, and any reader's attention will jump to the reviews with the thumbnails.

This design choice certainly emphasizes photos. However, the consequence is that it de-emphasizes the text of the reviews. This de-prioritization of text content might be coming too soon for the current Yelp userbase - most reviews don't include pictures yet.

In fact, I argue that this decision implicitly deprioritizes an important, core group of Yelp users: foodies who will write up reviews after their visit, but who are not quite so hard-core as to be snapping photos during the meal. If I'm not the type to take pictures, I'm even less incentivized to write a review now because it will probably just be part of a large mass of text on the page.

Perhaps this is a risk Yelp is willing to take - there are enough hardcore foodies who can supply both text reviews and photos. But, there's a lot more that Yelp can do to increase engagement from more casual reviewers and users...

The Creator and the Consumer

Yelp users probably only have one of two mindsets at any given time, either as a consumer of the content on Yelp, or as a creator of it. Looking up a restaurant is a completely different set of tasks and desires from writing a review and reflecting on a recent experience. Yelp can do more to develop distinct user experiences for these two activities.

Yelp's is currently great for consuming content is strong. But what if Yelp really fostered the experience for reviewers? Imagine, for example, if Yelp helped me, as an aspiring foodie, create my own food adventures blog. This might be a page similar to a Tumblr where I can post my reviews, automatically create cool widgets like an interactive map of places I've been, and upload any pictures from my food experiences.

Why is this an interesting idea? The primary reason is that it would keep me more engaged with Yelp, since I would feel like Yelp is giving me something back for my content. Currently, my Yelp presence is limited to my reviews on individual business pages and to my profile page, which still sports an old design and does not present my reviews in a particularly appealing or easy-to-process way. I would greatly enjoy a feature where Yelp helps organize my content and applies a bit of design magic to it.

From Yelp's point of view, this would be a tool to retain reviewers. The individual food blogs would provide an impetus for reviewers to write more reviews and to take more pictures, which will further improve the business pages. I imagine that there is a lot of value in fostering a large group of users who contribute a lot of reviews - having opinions of many different establishments from one user could be very valuable for improving the aggregate ratings and weeding out fake reviews. Yelp's "Elite" program suggests that they already know and appreciate the value of having such a core group of users.

As Yelp gains more users and a larger content base, there will be a slowly weakening incentive for existing users to continue contributing. This might not hurt Yelp's metrics or overall business for a while, but there is a compelling motive to keep existing active users engaged. One way to do so is to provide that group "something in return" for creating the content that powers Yelp.

I've enjoyed Yelping my NYC food adventures, and find the product to be extremely helpful. I can't imagine navigating the food scene in the city without Yelp. The new business page design on Yelp is beautiful and is surely the product of a lot of work. But with any kind of big product or design change, it's hard to tell right away what the long-term impact to user engagement will be. Yelp might want to consider different ways to retain its core group of content creators as it continues to grow.

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