How Does Yelp Make Money and Where Is It Going Next?

Yelp-LogoFollowing Foursquare’s slick website revamp and Facebook’s Yelp-like mobile SMB profile pages, we’ve heard the standard chorus of Yelp “killer” claims from generalist tech media. This was followed closely by Yelp’s positive Q1 earnings.

Facebook’s scale is scary and Graph Search has clear local applications. But the hard part for Facebook will be convincing the world that it’s a search utility like Yelp, in addition to a place to look at drunk pictures of friends. Can its fun persona coexist with being the go-to place to find an electrician?

Yelp meanwhile has a reviews volume that erects a sizable barrier to competition. More importantly, it has something that the Facebooks and Foursquares of the world wish they had: direct local sales. That’s the unsexy part of the discussion, but the key to monetizing the products we do talk about incessantly.

I always say that Yelp combines the nimble and engineering-driven product focus of a Foursquare or Facebook, with the direct SMB sales of a YP. It’s a powerful combo that few companies have, and few people talk about in blogospheric proclamations of category killers.

Another thing seldom discussed is how exactly Yelp makes money. I thought I’d take this opportunity to spell out the model, because I’m constantly asked. It also reveals of some of the moats that Yelp has built and where its product development and growth opportunities may lie.

In terms of revenue sources, of Yelp’s $138 million 2012 revenue, about 80% was local advertising. 15% came from brand advertising (think restaurant and hotel chains), and the remaining 5% was affiliate revenue for things like OpenTable or Orbitz bookings.

The local ads segment consists of Enhanced Profiles for SMBs and national chains with individual locations. Of Yelp’s 47 million global listings and 1 million claimed listings, 40,000 have upgraded to one of these Enhanced Profiles at an average spend of $4,200 annually.


Anyone can claim a profile which involves mail or telephone authentication. At this free level, there’s a growing list of features such as responding to reviews and profile analytics. The latter teases out the ROI that can be gained from upgrading to the paid level.

Enhanced Profiles conversely push your profile links to Yelp search (desktop and mobile) and competitor’s profiles, while also clearing ads from your own profile, and you can choose multimedia such as slideshows.

Multimedia is a key point, because it represents where I think the biggest opportunity lies for Yelp and its competitors. Smartphone saturation and wireless broadband have created a fertile environment for video production and sharing via applications like Vine.

People already love taking pictures of food: 61% of Yelp’s photo uploads are from mobile not surprisingly. Low-barrier video is the next step, and the question is how local businesses will capture and redistribute this activity? Or how can Twitter/Vine help them get there?

That’s where Yelp and Foursquare come in. Given that multimedia is additive to profile or feed-based local discovery, it’s something could join Foursquare’s Explore tab. That would be fitting to Foursquare’s current charge to prove itself as a serious local discovery utility.

Look for Yelp to likewise do something soon to better equip users to capture sights and sounds, thereby creating a library of 1). points of user engagement, 2). monetizable moments. SMBs can redistribute video through social channels, or spotlight it within their Yelp profiles.

There are lots of ways this could play out, and kinks to be ironed. But I’m making the call now: Yelp within the next year will partner, build or acquire a Vine-like product that brings low-barrier viral video production and distribution into the product mix.

This hints at Yelp’s mobile monetization, or at least part of it. Like Facebook, Yelp’s ARPU could go down as users migrate to the undermonetized touch point that is mobile. And like Facebook, Yelp’s mobile monetization will be more about native content discovery. Foursquare has already gone down that road, and Yelp won’t be far behind.

Mike Boland is senior analyst at BIA/Kelsey, where he heads up the firm’s mobile local coverage. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Yelp business development VP Mike Ghaffary will be giving a keynote address at Street Fight Summit West in San Francisco on June 4th. Don’t miss the chance to meet him, as well as hundreds of other top hyperlocal industry executives. Buy your ticket now and save!

Mike Boland is Street Fight's lead analyst, author of the Road Map column and producer of the Heard on the Street podcast. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social and emerging tech. More biographical information can be seen at
  1. May 6, 2013

    Question for Yelp is they lack social graph capability that Facebook has and is something vital for long-term local reviews. Facebook local will be serious challenge to Yelp in coming years as FB gets their local engine cranked up.

    1. louise
      July 5, 2013

      Many just plain folks like me are starting to not use Yelp because of their filter. I have written 12 reviews (legitimate) and only one is not filtered. Some businesses have up to 80% of their reviews filtered – with know explanation or reasons why. I now read the filtered reviews, but most people don’t even know they exist, and Yelp offers know way to communicate concerns. People are catching on to this, and whether yelp does this on purpose or not, people believe they treat paying customers differently than their “free” businesses. This is so bad , I know several small businesses that are going to quit using even the free profile.

  2. Brian Coryat
    May 8, 2013

    I’m not surprised that only 15% of ad revenue came from enterprise customers. At LML, we represent many brands in local search and Yelp has pretty much refused to deal with us and will only deal directly with the brand. Until they embrace the agencies, they will be leaving money on the table.

  3. Tom
    May 27, 2013

    Why don’t yelp charge its client/ business in the first place? Wouldn’t that be profitable?

    1. Baryll
      November 13, 2013

      Not at all. This would be a disaster for them, there is making money, then there is putting a shell to the public eye. Yelp is not Angie’s List.

  4. Cassandra Caterson
    September 6, 2017

    welp guess that was wrong

  5. Amit Rohra
    September 26, 2017

    Hey @Michael Boland, Have a look at “Peepin” app on the android/IOS store. We’re building a live video driven local discovery platform from India. We’re focussing on the nightlife niche to begin with and it’s early days for us yet with just an MVP shipped so far with a few iterations, but I’m guessing you’re going to have a “Hey! That’s sorta what I meant” moment. Without going into depth, our roadmap is very much in line with some of the stuff you’ve written about lately, including local location based engagement. Would love to get your feedback, if you can offer your take on the app. You can chat with us from within the app :-). Looking forward to hearing what you think. Cheers! 🙂

  6. Bobby D
    December 29, 2017

    The billion dollar lie there is no algorithm to yelp i herd all it is is your cell phone and one reservation check it and see. You can review anyone and it will stay up not go in the not recommended Jeremy Stoppelman made billions on a lie to the world. I found stuff on yelp that leads me to be leave when you don’t use yelp for advertising ether the advertiser that calls or Jeremy Stoppelman puts up bad reviews about business .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 Ways to Increase Engagement With Mobile Ads