Many operators have a love/hate relationship with online review site Yelp, skewing toward the latter each time an anonymous reviewer trashes their restaurant online. But even Yelp’s biggest enemies may find themselves making frequent use of Yelp Trends, a searchable database of 57 million Yelp reviews that tracks trends over time and further breaks them down by individual markets.
Here’s how the company describes Yelp Trends on its corporate blog. “Yelp Trends searches through words used in Yelp reviews to show you what’s hot and reveals the trend-setting cities that kicked it all off. Our massive wealth of data and the high quality reviews contributed by the Yelp community are what allow us to surface consumer trends and behavior based on ten years of experiences shared by locals around the world.”
Yelp Trends might work for a restaurant operator this way. Say you were thinking about opening a sandwich shop in Chicago and wanted to give your menu a contemporary Asian spin. What’s the best bet right now: ramen burgers, banh mi sandwiches or both?
To find out, the operator would call up Yelp Trends, type “ramen burger” in one search field, “banh mi” in the next and specify “Chicago” in the city box. Yelp Trends then returns a graph showing that through the middle of 2014, banh mi sandwiches have a steady following while ramen burgers, after a small burst of interest in late 2013, now barely register. Add a third search term—“craft beer” for example—and the operator would learn that a restaurant that offers craft beer and banh mi sandwiches looks like it could be a winner in the Chicago market.
Keep in mind that the raw data consists of words used in existing Yelp reviews, so Yelp Trends takes a kind of a heard-it-through-the-grapevine approach. This tool tells you what Yelp reviewers have talked about, not what they actually bought or intend to buy in the future.
Another factor: Yelp Trends results reflect the interests of only a small subset of the site’s visitors. Many, many people read Yelp reviews; relatively few contribute one. As the company noted in a 2012 blog post, “Like other forms of social media, Yelp follows the 1/9/90 Rule. In other words, most people on Yelp don't write reviews; they read them." Not familiar with this rule? “The so-called 1/9/90 rule posits that on a social media network or review site, only one percent of users will actively create content,” writes Susan Kuchinskas.
“Another nine percent, the editors, will participate by commenting, rating or sharing the content. The other 90 percent watch, look and read without responding," she adds.
A third quibble: Quantitative types will gripe that the graphs produced by Yelp Trends don’t have numerical values on their vertical or Y axis. Which is to say, while the horizontal or X axis along the bottom of each graph provides a clear look at how a trend has changed over the past 10 years, the Y axis provides no sense of the magnitude of those changes.
So carefully calibrated market research this is not. But with 132 million unique visitors in the first quarter of 2014, Yelp is providing direct access a treasure trove of anecdotal opinion no other site can touch. Restaurant owners who use Yelp Trends to discover information that could be useful for their business should find plenty of it. Yelp Trends may not offer a precise current measurement of food and restaurant trends, but it looks like it could become one of the leading indicators.