Who’s Winning the Reviews Race? How Do We Define Winning?

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Photo by Tom Grimbert.

David: Hey, Mike. A little birdie (a.k.a. the GatherUp Twitter account) told me you were in the Twin Cities for a few meetings last week. I just flew back to Portland from a snowstorm in Denver; I hope you avoided that.

Mike: That I am. Although the weather here is only slightly better than Denver’s. 🙂 It is fun to have the GatherUp team together. Being a totally remote company has its benefits, but being in the same room really helps move things along and helps ideas blossom.

David: You asked me a question offline a couple weeks ago about what the review landscape looked like 10 years ago versus today. I went back to my Local Search Ranking Factors Archives and found you the collective wisdom of the contributors in 2009:

Most Important Review Engines

  • Yelp
  • InsiderPages
  • Yahoo
  • CitySearch
  • Google
  • Superpages
  • Niche Industry Sites (BBB, Vertical Directories)
  • TripAdvisor
  • Judysbook
  • Kudzu

Other sites receiving significant votes: Yellowpages, Merchant Circle, AngiesList.

Got me thinking that might be a good topic of conversation for this week: 10 years on from that survey, who’s winning the reviews race, and maybe just as importantly, how should we define what winning means?

Mike: I asked because in the general review space, not looking at vertical review sites, time has left us with two (maybe three) review sites, down from 10+ sites back then. I am not sure if Facebook is really in the local review game. Really, we are down to Google and Yelp.

David: I have to disagree with you pretty strongly there. That’s true in terms of horizontal players, but I’d argue if anything vertical review sites are even more important today than they were in 2009. At least in terms of impact on Google rankings and more importantly in consumers’ perception of your brand on “your new homepage.”

Those schema’d stars in the organic results and great big numbers in “reviews from around the web” on your business profile really help consumers make an instant judgment about the quality of your business.

Mike: I absolutely agree with you that the vertical review sites play a critical role in many industries, but not all. In some industries, like insurance, there are no vertical review sites, and one has to wonder, now that the horizontal sites are effectively down to two players, what the future holds.

David: Not “no sites,” just different ones—GlassDoor, Indeed, and Angie’s List still seem pretty prominent for those insurance searches.

But, point taken, Google has become a behemoth in this space. And Yelp, for all its warts, is the only one who has been able to continue to make a go of it.

Mike: I wonder now that we are down to two, what the future holds for them. It has been nearly 10 years since Google broke off purchase negotiations to buy Yelp, and so many of these other sites have gone by the wayside.

If you look at the number of reviews, according to my research, Google is generating 35 times the number of reviews per location as Yelp. Yelp has basically decided to go after only the small set of very motivated reviewers and effectively limit access to their review platform.

David: Much digital ink has been spilled over the outsized influence of “coastal elites” in our politics. While I’m not sure that’s necessarily true politically, it not only characterizes Yelp’s user base, but, thanks to its asinine and self-defeating stance around review solicitation, now seems to define Yelp’s entire business strategy.

Mike: This Google trends chart captures visually both the impact of the Yelp coastal elites and the growing impact of mobile. It sure seems to indicate that there is less new searcher interest in Yelp as well.

David: Wow. Both the geographic overlay and the trend line combine for a striking visual. Yelp could argue that enough people have downloaded its app that they no longer need to search for Yelp on Google. I’m willing to bet there are more than a few extra zeroes of searchers looking for restaurants near me.

Mike: This search is also just for one vertical. If you were to plot all of the “near me” searches, Yelp becomes just a footnote.

David: Eschewing the wisdom of the crowds and ignoring the raging success of sites like Rotten Tomatoes in the entertainment industry, Yelp is apparently willing to die on the hill that local searchers prefer to read, and make purchase decisions, based on long-form reviews from a small subset of the overall searching and purchasing population.

Your point about mobile is particularly apt here.

Google has made the exact opposite bet—that stars and ratings from a much broader set of consumers, whether or not they’re “elite” or care enough to write up a blow-by-blow of their entire experience at a local business, better facilitate a snap judgment on a mobile phone (let alone in a voice search).

Mike: I agree that most consumers would just as soon see a very high level summary of reputation for a business.

These changes and the ready inclusion of rich snippet stars has created significant space in many verticals for businesses to highlight their own first-party reviews.

David: Particularly in industries where there aren’t strong vertical review players, like insurance or financial services, enterprises in particular who can implement a review collection strategy once, at scale, to huge benefit, are foolish to overlook this as table stakes in their overall marketing mix.

Mike: There are many benefits to Google having (what by my estimates are) hundreds of more reviews per location than Yelp. Not only does it allow for easier summaries for the consumer, but it also allows Google to create some innovative use of reviews like using them to answer users’ questions in real time.

Mike: It has been almost 10 years since Google attempted to buy Yelp. We are now effectively down to two general sites with Yelp becoming a “nichy” general site of sorts. Google has effectively dominated the the general review space.

David: I agree with you there. From a consumer standpoint, Apple Maps is the only thing keeping Yelp’s relevance afloat. (Though, Yelp reviews are still worth their SEO weight in gold, as you personally demonstrated not too long ago).

Mike: For me, the question of the future is whether Google’s behaviors will impact the remaining vertical sites over the next 10 years in a similar way. It seems that they help Google complete a picture of the businesses they are displaying. But that has never stopped them before.

David: Yes. Ironically, this is where I stand fully on the side of Yelp in terms of its antitrust saber rattling. Searchers should see a broader set of reviews than just Google. There are other companies that are doing a better job of industry-specific data collection and plenty that are policing fake reviews better than Google is.

But I don’t see Google attempting to acquire any of these still-relevant vertical players—that’s for sure. Their high-level, democratized review acquisition strategy has given them plenty of data to satisfy local searchers better than anyone else, for as far as I can see into the future at least.



After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 


Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.