I frequently tout Yelp as the company that has the best local database in the United States focused on restaurants and entertainment. With thousands of Yelpers around the country who aggressively review businesses in their cities, Yelp manages to stay well ahead of their competitors. Where a new restaurant can take months to make it into Google Maps, it’s often listed on Yelp before it opens thanks to devoted Yelpers who keep an eye on what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
Yelp also has another key asset, which has long been hidden: a large volume of pictures uploaded by Yelpers. While these have been available on the Web site, they haven’t been the focus. Yelp’s iPad app puts them front and center.
Local search has long been optimized around the data sources that are available and the way computers best process information, not the way consumers look for information. Looking for the address of Lovejoy Bakers? Piece of cake. Local search will find it for you. Looking for a romantic restaurant that’s not too crowded but has a modern feel? Good luck with that.
Here’s where pictures can play a big part. Solving such queries is incredibly hard because they require value judgments and computers aren’t good at making such judgments. Even among different people, those judgments vary. Romantic, crowded and modern mean different things to different people. If you read dozens of reviews, perhaps you could get a good sense for whether a business meets your definition of these words. But that’s work that very few people are willing to do.
It’s much easier (and more fun) to flip through dozens of pictures.
Pictures provide easier and faster answers to:
- Is this place a dive?
- Does this place cater to people like me?
- It this place kid friendly? I never would’ve guessed that a brewpub near me was kid-friendly until I flipped past a picture of a play area with kids in it.
- What does this place feel like?
- Is the food pretentious?
Pictures also help with another problem that many user reviews have: too much time spent talking about the reviewer rather than the place being reviewed.
Popular venues in major cities such as flour+water and 21st Amendment in San Francisco can have more than 100 pictures. In smaller cities, it might be just one or two.
We’re just at the beginnings of truly using images in local search. I imagine that we’ll soon see image recognition algorithms that will sort the uploaded pictures into categories such as food, interior, exterior, etc.
Cell phones are increasingly becoming data collection devices and Yelp users are at the vanguard. Yelp claims 3.5 million monthly unique users on mobile devices. If only a small fraction of them are contributing content, that’s still thousands of people providing ground truth. Yelp reports that a photo is uploaded every 30 seconds via mobile devices. With check ins, photos and real-time data corrections, local search is becoming a much richer experience.