Reviewers are encouraged to use real names and photos. Each year members of the Yelp community are invited or self-nominated to the "Yelp Elite Squad" and some are accepted based on an evaluation of the quality and frequency of their reviews. Members may nominate other reviewers for elite status. Users must use their real name and photo on Yelp to qualify for the Elite Squad. To accept a nomination, members must not own a business. Elite Squad Yelpers are governed by a council and estimated to include several thousand members. Yelp does not disclose how the Yelp Elite are selected. Elite Squad members are given different color badges based on how long they've been an elite member. The Yelp Elite Squad originated with parties Yelp began throwing for members in 2005, and in 2006 it was formally codified; the name came from a joking reference to prolific reviewers that were invited to Yelp parties as the "Yelp Elite Squad"." Members are invited to special opening parties, given gifts, and receive other perks. As of 2017, there are over 80 local Elite Squads in North America.
According to BusinessWeek, Yelp has a complicated relationship with small businesses. Criticism of Yelp continues to focus on the legitimacy of reviews, public statements of Yelp manipulating and blocking reviews in order to increase ad spending, as well as concerns regarding the privacy of reviewers.
In August 2013, Yelp launched a series of town hall style meetings in 22 major American cities in an effort to address concerns among local business owners. Many attendees expressed frustration with seeing Yelp remove positive reviews after they declined to advertise, receiving reviews from users that never entered the establishment, and other issues. A 2011 "working paper" published by Harvard Business School from Harvard Associate Professor Michael Luca and Georgios Zervas of Boston University found that there was no significant statistical correlation between being a Yelp advertiser and having more favorable reviews. The Federal Trade Commission received 2,046 complaints about Yelp from 2008 to 2014, most from small businesses regarding allegedly unfair or fake reviews or negative reviews that appear after declining to advertise. According to Yelp, the Federal Trade Commission finished a second examination of Yelp's practices in 2015 and in both cases did not pursue an action against the company.
In December 2009, Google entered into negotiations with Yelp to acquire the company, but the two parties failed to reach an agreement. According to The New York Times, Google offered about $500 million, but the deal fell through after Yahoo offered $1 billion. Tech Crunch reported that Google refused to match Yahoo's offer. Both offers were later abandoned following a disagreement between Yelp's management and board of directors about the offers. In June 2015, Yelp published a study alleging Google was altering search results to benefit its own online services.
Yelp staff acknowledged that they had allowed their advertising partners to move their favorite review to the top of the listings as a "featured review", but said the reviews were not otherwise manipulated to favor the partner businesses. Such featured reviews were shown with a strip above them that said "One of [Insert Business Here]'s Favorite Reviews" and "This business is a Yelp sponsor." The company also said it might have had some rogue salespeople that misrepresented their practices when selling advertising services. In response to the criticism of their allowing their advertising partners to manipulate the review listing, Yelp ceased its "featured review" practice in 2010.
In late 2015, a "Public Services & Government" section was introduced to Yelp and the General Services Administration began encouraging government agencies to create and monitor official government pages. For example, the Transportation Security Administration created official TSA Yelp pages. Later that year Yelp began experimenting in San Francisco with consumer alerts that were added to pages about restaurants with poor hygiene scores in government inspections. Research conducted by the Boston Children's Hospital found that Yelp reviews with keywords associated with food poisoning correlates strongly with poor hygiene at the restaurant. Researchers at Columbia University used data from Yelp to identify three previously unreported restaurant-related food poisoning outbreaks.
Having filed for an initial public offering (IPO) with the Securities Exchange Commission in November 2011, Yelp's stock began public trading on the New York Stock Exchange on March 2, 2012. At a share price of $15, the company was valued at $898 million. In 2012, Yelp agreed to acquire its largest European rival, Qype, for $50 million. The following year, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman reduced his salary to $1. Yelp acquired the start-up online reservation company SeatMe for $12.7 million in cash and company stock in 2013. Yelp's second quarter 2013 revenue of $55 million "exceeded expectations", but the company was not yet profitable.
Several lawsuits have been filed against Yelp accusing it of extorting businesses into buying advertising products. Each have been dismissed by a judge before reaching trial. In early 2010, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Yelp alleging it asked a Long Beach veterinary hospital to pay $300 a month for advertising services that included the suppression or deletion of disparaging customer reviews. The following month, nine additional businesses joined the class-action lawsuit, and two similar lawsuits were filed. That May the lawsuits were combined into one class-action lawsuit, which was dismissed by San Francisco U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in 2011. Chen said the reviews were protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and that there was no evidence of manipulation by Yelp. The plaintiffs filed an appeal. In September 2014 the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, finding that even if Yelp did manipulate reviews to favor advertisers, this would not fall under the court's legal definition of extortion.
On November 2, 2016, concurrent with its earnings report for Q3 2016, Yelp announced it would drastically scale back its operations outside North America and halt international expansion. This resulted in the termination of essentially all international employees across Yelp's 30+ international markets from the sales, marketing, public relations, business outreach, and government relations departments. Overseas employees now primarily consist of engineering and product management staff. Yelp claims these layoffs affected only 175 individuals, or 4 percent of its total workforce.
As of June 2016, 72 percent of Yelp searches are done from a mobile device. The Yelp iPhone app was introduced in December 2008. In August 2009, Yelp released an update to the iPhone app with a hidden Easter Egg augmented reality feature called Monocle, which allowed users looking through their iPhone camera to see Yelp data on businesses seen through the camera. Check-in features were added in 2010.
According to Fortune Magazine, Yelp's initial email-based system was "convoluted". The idea was rejected by investors and did not attract users beyond the cofounders' friends and family. Usage data showed that users were not answering requests for referrals, but were using the "Real Reviews" feature, which allowed them to write reviews unsolicited. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the site's popularity soared" after it was re-designed in late 2005. Yelp raised $5 million in funding in 2005 from Bessemer Ventures and $10 million in November 2006 from Benchmark Capital. The number of reviewers on the site grew from 12,000 in 2005, to 100,000 in 2006. By the summer of 2006, the site had one million monthly visitors. It raised $15 million in funding from DAG Ventures in February 2008. In 2010, Elevation Partners invested $100 million; $75 million was spent on purchasing equity from employees and investors, while $25 million was invested in sales staff and expansion. Yelp grew from six million monthly visitors in 2007 to 16.5 million in 2008 and from 12 to 24 cities during the same time period. By 2009, the site had 4.5 million reviews. By 2010, Yelp's revenues were estimated to be $30 million and it employed 300 people.
According to BusinessWeek, Yelp has "always had a complicated relationship with small businesses". Throughout much of Yelp's history there have been allegations that Yelp has manipulated their website's reviews based on participation in its advertising programs. Many business owners have said that Yelp salespeople have offered to remove or suppress negative reviews if they purchase advertising. Others report seeing negative reviews featured prominently and positive reviews buried, and then soon afterwards, they would receive calls from Yelp attempting to sell paid advertising.
Yelp added the ability for business owners to respond to reviews in 2008. Businesses can respond privately by messaging the reviewer or publicly on their profile page. In some cases, Yelp users that had a bad experience have updated their reviews more favorably due to the businesses' efforts to resolve their complaints. In some other cases, disputes between reviewers and business owners have led to harassment and physical altercations. The system has led to criticisms that business owners can bribe reviewers with free food or discounts to increase their rating, though Yelp users say this rarely occurs. A business owner can "claim" a profile, which allows them to respond to reviews and see traffic reports. Businesses can also offer discounts to Yelp users that visit often using a Yelp "check in" feature. In 2014, Yelp released an app for business owners to respond to reviews and manage their profiles from a mobile device. Business owners can also flag a review to be removed, if the review violates Yelp's content guidelines.
Yelp also conducts "sting operations" to uncover businesses writing their own reviews. In October 2012, Yelp placed a 90-day "consumer alert" on 150 business listings believed to have paid for reviews. The alert read "We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business". In June 2013, Yelp filed a lawsuit against BuyYelpReview/AdBlaze for allegedly writing fake reviews for pay. In 2013, Yelp sued a lawyer it alleged was part of a group of law firms that exchanged Yelp reviews, saying that many of the firm's reviews originated from their own office. The lawyer said Yelp was trying to get revenge for his legal disputes and activism against Yelp. An effort to win dismissal of the case was denied in December 2014. In September 2013, Yelp cooperated with Operation Clean Turf, a sting operation by the New York Attorney General that uncovered 19 astroturfing operations. In April 2017, a Norfolk, Massachusetts jury awarded a jewelry store over $34,000 after it determined that its competitor's employee had filed a false negative Yelp review that knowingly caused emotional distress.
Yelp introduced a site for the United Kingdom in January 2009 and one for Canada that August. The first non-English Yelp site was introduced in France in 2010; users had the option to read and write content in French or English. From 2010 to 2011, Yelp launched several more sites, in Austria, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. International website traffic doubled during the same time period. An Australian website went live in November 2011. It was supported through a partnership with Telstra, which provided one million initial business listings, and was initially glitchy. Yelp had a presence in 20 countries by the end of 2012, including Turkey and Denmark. Yelp's first site in Asia was introduced in September 2012 in Singapore, which was followed by Japan in 2014.
Steve Jobs called Stoppelman in January 2010 in an effort to persuade him to turn down an acquisition offer by Google and in March 2012 Stoppelman rang the bell for the New York Stock Exchange after Yelp went public. According to Stoppelman, the biggest challenge at Yelp has been "the same problem Google faces in its rankings." Business owners have been suing reviewers that leave negative reviews and raising allegations that Yelp tampers with reviews to favor companies that advertise, leading to legal troubles for the company. In February 2013, Stoppelman accepted a salary of $1, though he continues to earn income from the investment of his 11 percent interest in the company.
According to Inc. Magazine most reviewers (sometimes called "Yelpers" ) are "well-intentioned" and write reviews in order to express themselves, improve their writing, or to be creative. In some cases, they write reviews in order to lash out at corporate interests or businesses they dislike. Reviewers may also be motivated by badges and honors, such as being the first to review a new location, or by praise and attention from other users. Many reviews are written in an entertaining or creative manner. Users can give a review a "thumbs-up" rating, which will cause it to be ranked higher in the review listings. Each day a "Review of the Day" is determined based on a vote by users. According to The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews many Yelp reviewers are internet-savvy adults aged 18–25 or "suburban baby boomers".
In 2018, in the case Hassell v. Bird, the California Supreme Court held by a narrow 4-3 margin that a business cannot force Yelp to remove a review, even if the review is defamatory of the business.
Two former PayPal employees, Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons, founded Yelp at a business incubator, MRL Ventures, in 2004. Stoppelman and Simmons conceived the initial idea for Yelp as an email-based referral network, after Stoppelman caught the flu and had a difficult time finding an online recommendation for a local doctor. The co-founders' former colleague from PayPal and founder of MRL Ventures, Max Levchin, provided $1 million in initial funding. MRL co-founder David Galbraith, who instigated the local services project based on user reviews, came up with the name "Yelp". In an interview published in February 2013, Stoppelman explained why they decided on "Yelp" for the company's name, stating that "it was short, memorable, easy to spell, and was familiar with 'the help' and 'yellow pages'".