Yelp Ranking Factors

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How would you go about ranking well on Yelp?For a while I’ve pondered a simple question: how does Yelp.com rank the businesses listed on it?

A few of my clients have wondered that, too.  They’ve asked, “Phil, my local rankings in Google are great, but why am I only on page 2 of Yelp for my big search terms?”

Until now, my answer has been “Well, I’m not sure, but I do know priority #1 is to get more customers to write you Yelp reviews.”

I was right – mostly.  Reviews in general are the biggest factor in your Yelp rankings.  (Duh…reviews are Yelp’s whole claim to fame).  That may not be news to you.

But there are specific aspects of those reviews – not just sheer numbers of them – that likely influence your rankings.  Plus, there seem to be entirely separate factors that matter.  (More on those in a second.)

 

Why should you care about your Yelp rankings?

a.  Yelp is already a giant in the local-search realm.  It’s a close second to Google+Local, and the site appears to be growing rapidly.

b.  Yelp has a hardcore user-base.  Yelpers love writing reviews, and they read others’ reviews.  They’re a good group of people to be visible to.

c.  Yelp reviews are fed to other big sites.  Bing Business Portal gets many of its reviews from Yelp – and should be getting more over time.  Plus there’s the soon-to-be partnership with Apple Maps.

d.  If ever we witness an epic “Google fail” (or, more likely, a series of smaller ones) and Google ceases to be the place people go to search for local businesses, my guess is Yelp will fill more of that role.

That, gentle reader, is why you need to pay attention to your Yelp presence (if you don’t already).

But Yelp, like Google, doesn’t exactly broadcast how it ranks businesses on its site.

 

First, a few notes

The little lawyer on my shoulder just reminded me that I should mention a few points before we get into the likely ranking factors.

  • This is based purely on my observations.  Yelp has not “told” me or anyone else what goes into their secret sauce.
  • Nor is this supposed to be some “scientific study” (as if there really is such a thing in the world of SEO).  Apart from a few years of dealing with Yelp for my clients, all I did recently was spend a couple hours studying the rankings in a variety of local markets.
  • All I’m trying to do is sketch out the basic moving parts that seem to make up Yelp’s machinery, so that you can make the most of the factors you can control and just be aware of the ones you can’t.  It would not be smart to try to game Yelp’s rankings (not that you’re the type to do that!).  Even if you could do so, the results probably wouldn’t last for long: Yelp has a lot of employees who “make the rounds” and keep the search results fairly clean.
  • One thing I want to show is the rankings are NOT just about how many reviews you have.
  • The rankings I’m referring to are the ones you see by default when you search on Yelp – the ones ranked by “Best Match”

The Factors

Major factors (I’m 99% sure Yelp takes these into account):

1.  Existence of reviews.  Almost all of the businesses that have reviews rank above the businesses that do not have any reviews.  Think of it as a poker game with an ante of one review.  If you don’t get that one review, you’re not even at the table.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews.  Spammers and scammers know about this, too, but Yelp’s filters do a pretty good job of weeding out the bad apples.

3.  Business categories specified.

4.  Name of business.  This is something you just can’t control on Yelp.  But if you have a relevantly-phrased business name, that will work in your favor.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.  These people are the wizened, weathered village elders.  Their words seem to carry extra heft.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.  These are going to be even more important once Apple Maps rolls into town.

8.  Quality of reviews.  Are they 1-star or 5-star?  This doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as you might think, but it does seem to be a factor.

Possible additional factors

9.  Number of reviews left for other businesses by reviewer.

10.  Completeness / thoroughness of business profile.

11.  Location-relevance of reviews.

12.  Recentness of reviews.

13.  Frequency of reviews.

14.  Age of listing.  I’d bet you a box of stogies that older listings are assigned a certain amount of “trust” by Yelp, and that they generally rank a little more highly as a result.

15.  Business info from third-party data-providers (particularly Acxiom, according to David Mihm’s Local Search Ecosystem).

16.  Editorial discretion of Yelp employees.

 

How might you improve your Yelp visibility?

  • Get duplicate listings removed.  You want any and all reviews your customers write to benefit one listing, rather than sorta-kinda benefit two listings.  You don’t want your reviews spread thinly.
  • Try to prevent future duplicates from popping up.  If this has been a problem, what I suggest you do is go to the upstream data-aggregators – Acxiom, InfoGroup, and LocalEze – and make sure you only have ONE listing per location on those sites, and that those sites list the same business info that your Yelp listing has.
  • Specify as many relevant business categories as you can.  Emphasis on ”relevant.”
  • Claim your Yelp profile so that you can write in-depth descriptions of your business and services.
  • When asking customers for reviews, your first question should be “Have you ever written Yelp reviews?”  If the answer is “yes,” simply ask those people to post a Yelp review for you.  They’ll know what to do.  Reviews left by first-time users are more likely to get filtered out.  Even if you ask someone who’s never heard of Yelp, that’s fine; just know that there’s a chance his/her review will never see the light of day.
  • If you’re face-to-face with a particularly enthusiastic, smartphone-fondling customer, ask him or her to give to go onto Yelp real quickly and give you a check-in.
  • Get in the habit of asking customers for feedback on Yelp.  Don’t have a Yelp-review binge weekend.  Ask customers as close to real-time as possible – not 2 months after you’ve provided your services.  I guarantee you won’t be able to drum up many reviews if you do it in bursts.  Just stick with it.

It would be very cool if someone else – maybe you! – continues to dig into the question of why some businesses rank more highly on Yelp than others do.

I’d love to hear any of your first-hand experience with Yelp rankings and visibility, or if you do some research and draw some new conclusions about Yelp’s likely ranking factors.

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Comments

  1. Phil, this is a super coincidence! I’ve been doing some research recently on Yelp’s ranking factors, too :) So let me share what I’ve found up to now.

    There seem to be two major types of ranking factors:

    - Searches that are exact match of a category available on Yelp: in these cases the most, most, most (did I mention “most”?) important factor is if you have this category assigned to your listing. After this, factors that matter are pretty similar to the ones you mentioned, with the very important note that completed Yelp profiles seem to rank much better in general.

    - Searches that are not exact match of a category: in these cases the most important factors seem to be keywords used in reviews, and especially if the specific “keyword-rich” review is left by a very active member (not necessarily an Elite, but Elites seem to be the “most powerful”). Additionally, here very important role play keywords in the business name (sadly).

    Some things that I like to think do not play important role: number of reviews, and proximity to “city centroid”. I think the first one is a conscious decision on Yelp’s side, and the second one… well, it has never made sense in any context anyway :)

    P.S. I’d also make the remark that if the business is not within the city of search boundaries, it will also not like anywhere near the top, but this is intuitive I think.

    • Wow, that is uncanny. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s been wrestling with Yelp ranking factors into the wee hours!

      I know what you mean about the exact-match categories on Yelp. If you’re an optometrist, you’d better make sure you’ve picked “Optometrists” as one of your categories, because you’ll probably rank very well for “optometrists” – which Yelp’s auto-suggest puts at the very top of the suggested searches as you type “opto…”

      Sort of as you said, the business name is a bit of an unfair advantage. Great if it just “happens” for you, but one had better not get any ideas about slipping in that one keyword. Seems to be the exact same situation as it is in Google.

      I agree about the centroid being a non-factor…that’s why I didn’t include it as one :)

      What you said about a business not being able to rank well if it’s not in the “target” city is true, except (based on what I’ve seen) in relatively uncompetitive markets, where there’s not a great density of local businesses that offer a specific service. Then again, that’s also the case in Google, as we both have seen a billion times.

      Thanks for the AWESOME input. I’m really looking forward to your post on this.

  2. Great stuff Phil! I love Yelp, and I love Yelp ranking strategies. Improving your prominence on Yelp will drive more traffic from Yelp itself, and I know from experience that it will have a very positive impact on your rankings as well. It’s one of the key things we focus on in all our SEO campaigns.

    Keywords in the reviews are an important ranking factor on Yelp. See this: http://www.slideshare.net/Beachhead/how-to-rank-higher-on-yelp
    When you tell your customers that “people love us on Yelp”, just drop a subtle hint that it would be great if they mention the service they had completed.

    • Hey Darren,

      Thanks for the feedback! I agree: as huge as Yelp is, I still think it’s a little underrated.

      In contrast to Google, Yelp has their [BLEEP]-ing [BLEEP] together pretty well.

      Thanks for the “pro tips” and for the link! Checking out those slides right now…

    • I agree , but what determines if yelp is going to be on page 1 for any business? Like I am in the town of Greensboro, NC and there are more review sites on p1 for Greensboro auto glass , than there are on Saint Louis Auto Glass, a term I used to rank for till I picked up and moved to a different market…. What makes Google pick and choose when and where to display review sites vs regular sites?

  3. Phil:

    The timing of this post is perfect. I just had a client email me yesterday wondering how they could rank better on Yelp. No joke. My response was, “I’ll look into it.” Do I owe you anything for doing the leg work for me:)

    I have a question on something you said in your post. You said this: “Reviews left by first-time users are more likely to get filtered out.” What does that mean exactly?

    Travis Van Slooten

    • Hey Travis,

      Glad my post was able to swoop in and save the day ;)

      My point about the filters is just that, as you know, Yelp has a mechanism for weeding out spam reviews. AKA their filters. Often when someone who has NOT written a Yelp review before joins Yelp and then leaves a (usually 5-star) review for a given business, Yelp’s filters view the review as spam, because it’s coming from this person who just came out of the blue and posted a shining review. As a result, that review won’t see the light of day, except to people who scroll down to the bottom of the business’s listing and click a link that shows them the unfiltered review.

  4. I know linkbuilding isn’t what it use to be. However, has anyone experimented with linkbuilding for a clients yelp profile to give it more authority to rank?
    Just curious…..
    Thanks,

    Ryan

    • Interesting question, Ryan. Nope, I haven’t experimented (maybe someone else has), but I doubt that links would affect one’s rankings in Yelp. Yelp is all about reviews, and because it’s not a search engine but rather a directory, it can rely on more business-specific signals (reviews, categories, etc.) rather than on signals (like links) that normally tell a search engine “Hey, look at this really good article” or “Here’s a really popular recipe.” Yelp just doesn’t need links to do what it does, so that’s why I’d say they’re very unlikely to be a factor.

      • Definitely won’t help with your rankings *in* Yelp, but could give your Yelp listing a boost in the SERPs. I like to link to my important citations from our client websites. I make a “Read our Reviews” page with links G+, Yelp, etc. You can link to your Yelp listing from some other citation sites as well.

        • Thanks for the feedback, guys.
          I should of added, to my original question, to rank “in the SERPs, especially Google’s organic results.”
          I’ve seen some Yelp profiles rank well for good keywords and was just curious if anyone has implemented a linkbuilding strategy for a Yelp profile and if they have seen good results.
          Best,

          Ryan

          • Hey Ryan,

            I doubt that links to one’s Yelp listing would help in Google in any way, but I haven’t tried it, so I can’t say for sure. I’be really interested in hearing if you give it a try!

  5. You guys may want to have a peep at … http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/yelp/

  6. One more thing that Yelp is all about besides reviews: Advertising.

    I’ve had several clients told by Yelpers that rankings could improve & bad reviews “disappear” if they advertised on Yelp.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Jim! Obviously I can’t really comment on whether Yelpers might be offering that sort of “deal” to potential buyers of ads (I wasn’t there), though it would really surprise me if that were the case. Stranger things have happened in the local SEO world, though.

  7. Thank you Phil for the research.
    Thank you Jim for the information “I’ve had several clients told by Yelpers that rankings could improve & bad reviews “disappear” if they advertised on Yelp.”

  8. Thanks Phil for sharing your excellent Yelp ranking insights and observations. For certain kinds of local businesses such as restaurants, bars, spas and other local services, local search is the future of their marketing success and Yelp is a key component. Yelp has an impact on Google+ Local Places and is a strong citation for many markets. Customer reviews matter not only from a ranking standpoint but are shown to highly influence purchase behavior. Who wants to risk going to a restaurant with only 2 star rating with a number of horror stories in the reviews? The only people eating there are non Yelp users! I know that Yelp is one of the Yext Power Listings partners which is supposed to provide some enhanced fields for certain local listing partners. Is a “PowerListing” a ranking factor or have any impact at all in your experience?

    • Any time, Rick!

      Couldn’t agree more about the extreme usefulness of reviews. Rankings are mostly a waste without ‘em. As my clients know, I’m a foaming-at-the-mouth fanatic about making sure that the reviews happen.

      I actually don’t use Yext for my clients. I know some people have seen good results with it. Everything I know about it so far tells me that it doesn’t directly help rankings, but rather helps clean up messy NAP, to a certain extent. I see it potentially as a good supplement to a local SEO campaign, but by no means as a substitute for putting in the time and effort to apply the fundamentals.

  9. Hi,

    I’ve just gotten off the phone for an hour talking with Yelp. Yelp says that they do not influence the organic search with advertising and that the number of reviews itself doesn’t improve your rankings. Now, I’m not an SEO/SM guru, but…they have assigned specific keywords to each category so I would love to know what the keywords are for each category so I can improve my website and Yelp listing. In answer, Yelp just said to list your services and local service area cities in your listing and hopefully that will match. What frustrates me is that I can be outside my business address and I search for the primary keyword and locality and I show up number 40 and with businesses 26 miles away showing up first. Hmmmm…

    Cheers,

    Norm

    • Hey Norm,

      Thanks for the great comment and for the first-hand insights. Yelp is definitely frustrating on several levels. I’m not surprised that they – like Google and any other search engine / site where people want to rank well – are keeping their cards close to the vest regarding ranking factors.

      I don’t know if what you told me about the “the number of reviews itself doesn’t improve your rankings” is word-for-word what they told you over the phone (sounds like it is), but I think the key word here is “itself.” I certainly haven’t seen that sheer numbers of reviews helps one business outrank another on Yelp.

      However, when you have lots of reviews, some of those reviews are bound to contain keywords relevant to your services or location (or both). And some of the reviews will almost certainly be from highly active Yelpers (maybe not “Elite”), but still active. Those DO seem to be ranking factors – and in many cases they’re “side-effects” (for lack of a better word) of having many reviews.

      My guess is that dumb numbers of reviews is one factor of many, but that it’s probably minor compared to the benefit you get from having quality, relevant reviews from trusted users. Obviously there are other factors in-play here – as you pointed out with the example of businesses 26 miles away showing up first. But reviews still are the coin of the realm in Yelp.

  10. Hey Phill
    Great post. I am not SEO/SM guru but I have many websites online. And some of my contacts suggested me to go for Yelp listing. Your article I found on an authority site. So as a beginner your article helped me a lot as you have explained really nicely the ranking factors. But I have some other confusion. I have never been with Yelp this before so I would like you to give some important tips of submission in Yelp in detail. I would also like to know what can be the step or way to get more and genuine reviews? Because as you said one time reviews not going to help. I have listing of IT sites, not restaurants or spa where I can get the local people and review. IT clients might have and might not have the yelp account so kindly guide me how to get fruitful reviews?

    Looking forward to tips and tricks from your experience :)

    • The best way to submit your business – or claim it if it’s already in Yelp’s directory – is by going to biz.yelp.com.

      Reviews are always tricky. In some industries it’s just much more feasible than in others. I’d have to know more about your clients in order to say how best they can try to get Yelp reviews – if it’s even practical at all. That’s getting into consultation territory. However, generally speaking, a good approach is to ask customers whether they’re active on Yelp *before* asking them to write reviews on Yelp. If they’re already active Yelpers, their reviews not only are more likely to “stick,” but also more likely to help your rankings. If, on the other hand, none of your customers has ever even heard of Yelp, your best bet may be to ask them to go to other sites to review you (Google+Local, CitySearch, or InsiderPages would be good).

  11. I was sent here from SEO Moz Q&A forum when I asked how to get in the top listing for my keyword and market in Yelp. Thank you for posting this article. It helps. I was also looking how to influence my rank in YP.com. Do you have any resources or information on that topic?

    • Hey Robert,

      Great question. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what the YP ranking factors are. I imagine that reviews play a huge role, as does the info you include in your YP listing. For all I know, businesses that advertise on YP are put above the ones that don’t.

      Actually, for about the past 6 months I’ve had the idea of doing a blog post on ranking factors for the main third-party directory sites (including YP). I may just do that one sooner rather than later (stay tuned)!

  12. Yelp is interesting for sure. I had all my massage reviews removed, not just filtered out but removed. I had 6 of them all from actual real caring massage clients. When contacting them they said it was to filter out certain reviews..all mine were positive. I don’t understand their process but I hope they become a bit more flexible in allowing reviews.
    :)

    • Hi Cheri,

      “Interesting” is a generous word to use for describing Yelp :)

      Although I agree with the principle of what they try to accomplish with the review filter, the execution is awful. It sounds like they may have whacked you for having too many positive reviews (relative to less-enthusiastic ones). I’m guessing the only circumstances under which Yelp won’t touch your positive reviews is if “elite” reviews wrote some or all of them.

      I like to think of a graph: as the average rating of your reviews increases, so does the level of “trust” that Yelp requires of the people leaving the reviews (i.e. “elite” reviewers vs. complete newbs). The reviews of first-timer reviews who leave a 5-star rating seem not to stick; but I bet that if one of your customers gave you a 2-star review, someone else who tried wrote you a 5-star would NOT have his/her review filtered. Just speculation on my part, though.

      I think the best thing you can do is have a prominent Yelp button on your site, which would link to your listing. That may help you get a trickle over time.

  13. Phil: I enjoy your blog. This is an update circa 2013, 2014 with regard to some different businesses with which we are associated. I don’t know if anyone else will see this but I hope you do.

    There is a significant correlation between the main search phrase used to access the yelp page (and it could be a key search phrase for google search) and the rankings on yelps directory.

    So if you are searching for shoe repair in your city, even if your real business name might be Gotham City Shoe Emporium if you are able to change your name for yelp to something that includes shoe repair Such as Gotham City Shoe Emporium Shoe Repair within the yelp page for shoe repair for popular Gotham City…you will probably get a higher ranking than when you had your actual name…Gotham City Shoe Emporium.

    Even batman has to buy shoes. ;)

    • Thanks, Peter.

      That’s true. It’s always the case that picking a search term -specific name can help your ranking within a given directory (or search engine). But it’s not a good idea if it’s not your real name, as I’m sure you know. And Yelp is pretty good about determining that (as you probably also know).

      • Yes: We try and stick to real names. We also see a lot of smb’s on yelp pages without real names. We really see a lot for pages with a full healthy directory of smb’s in a category. Again and again we see higher rankings associated with the search phrase. Those smb’s are not using their real names….but they are getting in the top ten…and they are skewed toward the top.

        but we also believe its a wee bit slippery. so be careful if and when you do this. ;)

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