Is Your Library Up on Yelp?Yelp consumer reviews offer crucial feedback from hard-to-reach patrons Feb 1, 2011
Librarians should think of Yelp (yelp.com) as a kind of giant suggestion box hanging on the wall of the Internet. This web-based review service describes itself as “an online urban city guide that helps people find cool places to eat, shop, drink, relax and play, based on the informed opinions of a vibrant and active community of locals in the know.” But it’s not just an urban city guide anymore, and it’s certainly not just for businesses, if the growing “Public Services & Government” category is any indication. Libraries—urban, suburban, and rural—are right there in the mix, and if you’re not already minding your library’s presence on the site, you could be missing out on important community feedback. With apologies to Clay Shirky: here comes everybody to review your library—are you ready for that?
Yellow Pages meets the web
Yelp had 41 million visitors in December 2010, up from 33 million in June. Since it was founded in 2004 (among the web-savvy West Coast start-ups that arose from the dot-com ashes), more than 15 million reviews have been submitted, with six million posted in just the last year. The reviews are gold, as they’re written predominantly by users in the 18–34 demographic—a notoriously difficult group of individuals for libraries to reach via traditional methods.
One of the factors driving Yelp’s rise in popularity is that it combines nearly all of the basic facts of a local business with the kind of no-nonsense advice that helps site users quickly figure out where to get the best service and where they shouldn’t bother wasting their time.
Think of it this way: If you had to describe Yelp to your grandmother 20 years ago, you would have told her that it was like the Yellow Pages, Zagat, and the AAA Road Atlas all rolled into one (indeed, the name itself is supposedly derived from a contraction of “Yellow Pages”). A typical search returns listings with phone numbers and addresses for each, an embedded Google Map marking the locations, and the first few lines of the review Yelp has determined to be the most helpful according to “recency, user voting, and other review quality factors.” After clicking through to a listing page, users find more info, including the URL, business category, and public transit directions if available, as well as the full range of user-submitted reviews. Review contributors are asked to rate an establishment on a scale of one to five stars (“Eek! Methinks not” to “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”) and add an annotation about their experience. Here’s a typical review that concisely marries mention of service and place description with a local’s knowledge of parking meter arcana:
For libraries, this is as good as it gets. What a great place to hang out, find whatever you can imagine and check out music CDs on the second floor. Parking is another matter.... The meters near [the library] are a pricy 25¢ per 10 minutes. Ridiculous. If you can walk a little, go a block or two toward South St. and you get 20 minutes for 25¢.
What are your patrons finding out?
Most users get to Yelp listings by searching the site homepage, but more and more are getting at the reviews directly from their favorite general search engine. Yelp listings are on the rise on both Google and Bing and are increasingly among the first set of results returned (especially for named libraries and branches and those with unique, nongeographical words in their titles). Yelp is all about discoverability, and when given the option, many users are going to click through to the Yelp reviews before they start browsing your library’s homepage.
Consider the way many people search for restaurants. You want to know more about the menu, so you search for the restaurant’s name. There among the results, just below the restaurant’s homepage, you see the Yelp listing, along with snippets of reviews from other patrons. So you click through to the Yelp reviews first. Perhaps you’re pleasantly surprised to find that the map and hours info you were looking for are already on the page, and you take note to sample the vegetarian spring rolls that reviewers are raving about. If the reviews are uniformly negative, on the other hand, you won’t waste your time even clicking back to the restaurant’s homepage, let alone heading out the door to try it.
Don’t you want to know what your patrons are finding out about your library before they walk through the doors?
The first thing you’ll want to do is get your library or branch location listed if it isn’t already. Most libraries should already be listed based on publicly available data, so you’ll likely just have to use the “Claim This Business” button at the bottom of unclaimed listings (don’t worry, you can list yourself as just an employee and not the “owner” during the claiming process, once you’ve verified your affiliation). If there’s no listing, Yelp provides a handy “Add a Business” button as well.
As soon as you have submitted, the site will walk you through a few steps to verify your affiliation (which can take a few days), but once you have access, you can start filling in details about your branch or library. You’re given the option to set specific hours, list your institutional history, describe any specialities, post photos, and, finally, list announcements of any upcoming events or programs that may be of interest to your patrons. (While you’re filling out all this information, you may also want to check out Google Places, another local business/institutional listing service that comes up when users search Google for the proper name of your institution; go to places.google.com/business.)
Besides updating patrons about upcoming programs, there are a number of ways librarians can effectively use Yelp. First and foremost, it should be considered yet another tool for evaluating your own services. Yelp reviews in particular can be useful as a means of seeing how your users are evaluating the library just as they would any other consumer experience or transaction. Of course, libraries can’t (and probably shouldn't) emulate retail in every way, but they can certainly see what resonates and what doesn’t.
In the case of an especially negative review, sometimes it’s best to let other users weigh in and balance out a sour opinion. However, Yelp has recently enabled a feature that allows verified account owners to counter reviews. This came about in response to criticism from business owners about factual inaccuracies and anonymous attacks—though the site does claim to remove automatically reviews it considers “suspicious” according to its own content filters. In the case of a genuine misunderstanding or an updated policy, it may be useful to let users know you’re taking the reviews seriously.
Finally, although Yelp is all about the local, there’s no reason not to expand your horizons. Take a look at other peer libraries with similar budgets, service populations, community demographics, etc. The five-star libraries from the LJ Index (LJ 10/1/10, p. 22–31; libraryjournal.com/ljindex2010) are a great place to start, as are the recent Institute of Museum and Library Services National Award winners.
Taking reviews to heart
Once you’ve started paying attention to the content of the reviews, then consider the reviews’ impact. Are these reviews something you’d want to share with your entire staff, administration, board, and community at large? Would you tout these reviews on your site or in a newsletter? Perhaps most crucial, consider how patrons new to the area might react when they Google the library for the first time and read the feedback others have left. You can’t control what any given Yelp reviewer will think or say about your library, but you can use the forum to foster contact as you build library services to give your patrons the best experience possible.
|Josh Hadro (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Editor, LJ, covering reference, ebooks, and academic libraries|