Like many other companies with location at their core, Yelp is in the process of morphing its fundamental offering into something more. The company is hoping its user reviews are just the groundwork for a more holistic service for merchants and customers alike. Meanwhile, advancements in mobile are taking local tech mainstream, giving companies and platforms of all shapes and sizes new capabilities — and new power. The response by many long-established players in local has been to up the ante and take hold of more of the process of doing business. Yelp is already dominant in the “before” (discovery) and the “after” (reviews). It wants to take part in the “during,” too.
Chad Richard, Yelp’s SVP of business development, recently spoke to Street Fight about how he is aiming to accomplish this by guiding the company toward strategic partnerships and acquisitions. Richard, who will speak at Street Fight’s upcoming conference in San Francisco, caught up with us about Yelp’s evolution, his background at Apple, and the limits of Google and Facebook within local.
Talk a bit about your role at Yelp and how it’s been informed by your previous work.
Prior to Yelp, I was most recently at Apple for six and a half years. One of the things I led up there was the launching of our maps strategy. We were in a situation where we were dependent on Google for maps, and that relationship started to seem more and more tenuous. It made sense to start thinking about building our own maps, so I was tasked with figuring out how to replace Google — which was obviously no small task. For me, it meant putting together the strategy for what we should be doing with local, and making several acquisitions to bring in teams that were passionate and deeply experienced in working with maps and local data. It was also putting together partnerships with companies like TomTom, Yelp, and DigitalGlobe. That was how I originally got to know the Yelp team.
I came to Yelp about six months ago. My team and I work to be an interface with the rest of the industry to Yelp — whether it’s setting up new partnerships for us, distributing our content into other apps and services, or doing acquisitions to help grow various initiatives here.
How can Yelp keep its identity and stay relevant in an industry that’s changing dramatically?
I think it’s still really early in the local space. For a lot of us who’ve been working in local for a long time, we feel like we’re deep into this process, but in many ways, if you think about the evolution of the industry and consumer adoption of technologies that enable it — and then small businesses adapting to the opportunities that those enabled customers afford them — it’s incredibly early.
Yelp is moving beyond discovery. It’s really just been in the last couple of years that we’ve added this second layer on top of it, which is all about engagement and connecting with local businesses. We’re still early there, despite the tremendous amount of momentum we’ve had in working on that strategy. Some of the obvious examples are the acquisitions of Eat24 and SeatMe. And there’s the Yelp transaction platform, where we’ve partnered with a lot of businesses in the local space who are basically aggregating local commerce and bookings and enabling [SMBs] to offer those [services] on Yelp profile pages. You have people showing up to Yelp with such strong intent and wanting to go interact with a local business, and the transaction platform provides a bridge so consumers can go ahead and purchase, or book an appointment.
Are SMBs going to have to start strategizing around and prioritizing select platforms like Google and Facebook, or will there still be room for the smaller players that offer digital services?
I think Google and Facebook will continue to play an important role in the local ecosystem, there’s no doubt about that. But due to their scale, they’re necessarily limited in the scope of what they can offer; that one-size-fits-all offering will not be appropriate for every business. I think people should be experimenting with them, but the types of customers they’re particularly adept at acquiring may not work for certain businesses. By no means are they going to be the solution for everybody.
We’re living in this world that in some ways is probably terrifying for small businesses, because there are more options than ever and it can be a little bit daunting. I think if businesses can really stay true to their brand and match the services that their brand is about, and resonate with the customers they want to target and retain, there are some great options out there.
If businesses can really stay true to their brand and match the services that their brand is about, and resonate with the customers they want to target and retain, there are some great options out there.
Do you think there ever will be a successful “one-stop shop” solution in local?
Based on the sheer diversity that’s encompassed within the local business ecosystem, there won’t be one service that is the perfect end-all be-all. Within certain verticals, broader platforms will have strong tendencies for success, and within others there will be misses. As local businesses define how they acquire and retain customers, they need to think about things that are appropriate for their specific business, not only based on the vertical they’re in but on the geography and demographics of those customers and how they want to interact, communicate, and do business. I don’t think Google and Facebook will provide full-service suites for all verticals; I think they’re effective customer acquisition vehicles for a subset of business types and geographic areas. The economics don’t work for everybody, and that broad shotgun approach isn’t always what businesses are looking for.
Looking ahead, what do you see happening in local in the next year or two?
We’re living in a world with lots of different services and offerings for businesses, and the better those services can play with each other to the benefit of the local business environment, the better off they’ll be. Because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for each local business, they’re going to have to work with multiple avenues to promote themselves. [If] those service providers can be intertwined and help support each other, businesses will be better off. I think there’s going to be a natural tendency toward collaboration and sharing between companies that are targeting SMBs, so that the SMBs can win.
Annie Melton is a Street Fight contributor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hear more from Chad Richard at Street Fight Summit West on June 7th in San Francisco. Click on the icon below for tickets!