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At Yelp, everyones a critic

Online reviewers find friends, fame as Elite members
by: ©2008 GREG WAHL-STEVENS, 
Guests at a Yelp Elite event mingle at a party sponsored by New Deal Distillery and the Maiden in Southeast Portland on Nov. 7.

At first glance, Yelp.com doesn't look much different from its competition. Like Citysearch, AOL City Guide, Urbanspoon and others, it's a business directory with a heavy focus on restaurants that are sorted, rated and reviewed, with room for Web users to post their comments.

But Yelp has a secret weapon: a loyal cadre of glamorous geeks known as the Yelp Elite who are taking the concept of user reviews to a new level.

'They're the role models,' says Laura Nestler, a Portland-based Yelp employee whose title is Community Manager. 'They're the social mavens. They just embody the idea of Yelp.'

The ideal Yelper contributes to the site with such frequency that it becomes an online food diary. The ideal Yelper also befriends other Yelpers in both the virtual and real worlds, making the site a cornerstone of his or her social life. And these ideal Yelpers are rewarded with the Elite label.

On Yelp.com, a reviewers' Elite status is noted alongside their user name, which is usually a first name and initial - Laura N., Andrea V., Buck J. But the real incentive for becoming Elite is the opportunity to meet other Elites, both online and in person.

Local businesses including New Deal Distillery, Moonstruck Chocolate, Hotlips Pizza and the Hotel deLuxe have sponsored Yelp Elite events, providing free food and drinks. There are frequent unofficial Yelp get-togethers as well, where Yelpers pay their own way.

An event in mid-October drew about 30 Yelpers to the Doug Fir Lounge for the first in a series of fireplace-themed happy hour gatherings.

Cocktail in hand, Nestler circulates among chatting Yelpers, greeting them by name, making jokes. She's been fostering the growth of the Portland Yelp site for about a year and a half.

Yelp launched in San Francisco in 2004. The site currently is active in 21 markets, including New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Seattle.

Nationally the site claims 14 million unique viewers a month, with a total of 4 million reviews. Yelp neither pays the reviewers nor reimburses them for meals. While staff members like Nestler contribute reviews, these are not flagged as official or editorial.

'It's all official,' Nestler says, 'which is interesting because you never know what you're going to get.'

The whole thing works, she believes, because 'everyone has an opinion' and because people always prefer the advice of friends and neighbors to that of strangers.

'It's nice to know that these aren't professional paid reviewers,' Nestler says. 'These aren't people who are going out on a corporate credit card. These are just real people who care about happy hours, who care about the best burrito for your money. … We have Yelpers that are high-end foodies; we have Yelpers that are cart enthusiasts.'

Rather than read every single review, advanced Yelpers bookmark their favorite writers. They also leave notes, reacting to one another's experiences.

'We do become friends, we do meet and hang out because it really does draw together like-minded individuals,' Nestler says. 'And Yelpers all across the country are doing this, too.'

Yelpers unite

'Are you Chris L.?' asks Danielle Kuehnel, approaching a man standing at the Doug Fir bar. She's been looking out for him because she admires his writing.

'He came on the scene a few months ago, and he's hilarious,' she says. 'I really want to meet this guy.'

Kuehnel is a typical Yelper, a 23-year-old who works for an online business. She's been Yelp Elite for about two months.

Originally from Portland, Kuehnel went to college out of state, and returned home to find she didn't know a lot of people in her hometown.

'I'm not about to do online dating,' she says, but a network for meeting friends sounded good.

She finds a spot by the fireplace, where she's joined by Kim Viernes, a 28-year-old who first began writing for Yelp in 2005, while she was working in Internet marketing in San Francisco.

'It was my job to be on the Internet every hour of every day and look for online discussion forums,' she explains. Once she found Yelp, she used it as an outlet. 'For me it was a little release of creativity,' she says. 'I've been a writer since, like, birth. It was just fun.'

Kuehnel and Viernes begin discussing how to handle a negative dining experience. Yelp includes a pathway for business owners to respond to individual reviewers, and Kuehnel says she has received one angry e-mail. Viernes prefers to refrain from Yelping if she has a bad meal.

At this point Joshua Chang, who is sitting nearby, jumps into the conversation.

'The point is to be honest, right?' he asks. 'Because you're trying to communicate. It's real critique from real people.'

He assumes that readers will take individual reviews with a grain of salt. 'People come from different perspectives. If you want to get an idea of what a restaurant's like, it's good to read a good cross-section of reviews.'

He adds, 'I put a lot more weight on my favorite writers than I do on just random people.'

Viernes agrees. 'As I create a social network and befriend people, I'm much more likely to read reviews from friends than I am from strangers.'

'It's really like a bunch of friends,' says Chang, a 31-year-old who moved to Portland from Hawaii a month ago. He says he's developed a habit of bringing home menus from every restaurant he goes to, and often snaps photos of his food.

'It's a group of people who find unique, cool places to go, and they share it with each other,' he says. 'I think that's the aspect of it that I really like.'

Brains, bars link Elite

For Chris Lister - the hilarious Chris L. - feedback from other Yelpers was the hook.

'I'm an addict, I really am,' he says.

Lister's job is search engine optimization, that is, finding ways to heighten his clients' Web visibility. In that capacity, he banged out a couple of reviews about six months ago, and loved the response from Yelpers, who mark one another's reviews as either 'useful,' 'cool' or 'funny.'

'People here are the most intelligent group of people I've met in a long time,' he says. 'And everybody has a great style.'

He sees Yelp as a community of writers, and when these colleagues approve of his work, he says, 'Those are some of the best compliments you could ever get.'

Tonight he's meeting his online friends for the first time.

'The Internet allows you to connect with people that you would not be able to normally meet,' he says between sips of beer. 'Look at these people here. … Everybody's engaged in conversation, nobody's against the wall. This is my first time, and I immediately felt that I knew everybody.

'Everybody obviously likes to drink,' he adds. 'But don't all good writers?'

Lister describes himself as a restaurant snob. He's a 36-year-old Portland native who earned Elite status just a few months after first logging on to the site.

Like all Elites, he isn't aware of the exact process by which he earned his badge.

'There's no special secret algorithm,' Nestler explains. 'It's more like you know it when you see it.'

There are certain requirements. To qualify as Elite, you must be 21 and over, use your real photo on the site, and use your real first name. You can't own or operate a business that would cause a conflict of interest. Yelpers can nominate one another if they wish, and you're notified by Yelp when you become Elite.

Social time is key

'To be a Yelper you do need to be able to go out,' Nestler says. 'A lot of people ask, does this cater to a younger crowd?'

The answer is yes, more or less. Yelp users tend to be from 26 to 35 years old. The majority have a college degree, and almost half of those have done postgraduate work. They're split equally between male and female.

They put in endless hours, generating a vast quantity of information, opinion and timely updates that even the most well-funded of newspapers or magazines could never afford.

As for quality, chefs and professional food critics can be skeptical. A recent New York Times article commented that when you write on Yelp, 'You're not in the most erudite company,' and noted dryly that when a Times critic files a review, it doesn't include an icon showing how many online friends he has.

For Yelpers, though, friendship and food writing are two sides of the same coin.

And with its clever fusion of MySpace, Citysearch and Wikipedia, Yelp is poised to cash in.