Yelp Ranking Factors

How would you go about ranking well on Yelp?For a while I’ve pondered a simple question: how does 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.