Yelp Ranking Guide for Local Businesses

Optimizing business listings is an emerging form of SEO, gaining in popularity due to the prevalence of local user review sites like Yelp, Google Places and Foursquare.

Getting on the first page of search results on these sites can help customers find your business and make all the difference in generating new prospects and sales.

With 500,000 business listings, 78 million monthly users and 30 million reviews covering nearly all verticals, Yelp is a beehive of review activity and as good a place to start optimizing your business’ profile as any other user review site.

Here, we’ll look into how Yelp ranks businesses in its search results and offer some tips to improve your Yelp ranking.

Inside Yelp’s search results
When Yelp users want to find a local business or service provider, they enter search terms for the business they want to find (“food truck,” “plumber,” etc) using Yelp’s search engine, which is also filtered by location.

What returns is the search engine results page. Businesses or services with the most reviews or highest rating do not always rank competitively, but rather a combination of different factors determine whether a business lands on the much-sought-after first page.

Yelp describes the process this way:

“Yelp’s search results are based on an algorithm that is designed to provide the best results based on a number of different factors including review text, ratings, and number of reviews.”

We previously wrote about restaurants having the most to gain from user review sites, and the ubiquity of the business type on Yelp serves as a good basis to explore some search engine results.

Conducting a simple search for “restaurants” in Austin, Texas, reveals 2,870 businesses and really sends home the importance of SEO on review sites.

Among these restaurants, the number of user reviews each has heavily affects its placement in search results. All the restaurants on the first page have more than 200 reviews (with the top result featuring the most, 849).

But, there’s more play here, since the second highest-ranking restaurant has less reviews than the third (No. 4 less than No. 5 as well).

To find out what’s going on, let’s look at some ratings. The restaurant in the top spot holds an average rating of 4 ½ stars from its reviewers, outranking the second- and third-ranking restaurants with 4 stars. Surprisingly, the restaurant in the eighth search result has 4 ½ star rating spread across 611 reviews — third highest review total on the list. So what gives?

Following Yelp’s algorithm description, user reviews must be influencing Yelp’s search engine results in another way.

By “review text” is meant how often a keyword from searcher’s query appears in Yelpers’ reviews. Businesses with a lot of highly-rated user reviews that include the word “restaurant” appear on the first page of results more often.

Finally, the text and keywords in a business’ listing itself helps determines its placement in search results. However, not as influential a factor as review count, rating, and user review text. The About sections for the first three restaurants in our test reveal little or no text at all, and so really is not that big a factor in such a general and crowded search.

Tips for reaching that first page
We’ve seen how Yelp’s algorithm aims at serving high quality businesses that are reviewed extensively and closely match a searcher’s query. But how can you, the business owner, use this knowledge to your advantage?

Max out the character limit — Completely fill out your business profile, including specialties, history and the business owner sections. You never know what potential customers will search for in relation to your business, so include every skill, service or product you offer. See examples of great business profiles here.

Keyword research–Aim to accurately match your business category, and the keywords you use to describe your business, to the search queries people actually use.

Our simple test above used a general keyword with lots of competition. Instead of targeting a keyword like “pizza,” try something like “best pepperoni pizza in Austin.” It can make more sense to target these long tail keywords, and rank competitively, than to place in the latter pages of search results which potential customers won’t see.

To discover popular keywords relevant to your business, try Google Adwords free keyword tool. Also, review the Yelp’s top searches for your business location and try to mirror your keywords to the popular searches.

Offer discounts–Among other filter s Yelpers use to find businesses, a popular feature is the ability to filter results by a “discount” attribute, further customizing search results. If you’re business doesn’t offer one, it obviously won’t be shown to the user. Make sure you give it a try.

Get more reviews–While it’s unethical to ask for positive reviews or influence a customer’s wording of reviews, it is within your power to increase the number of reviews your business has and ask the right customers to review your business. As we’ve seen, sheer number of reviews alone is the best way to reach that first page, and the community aspect of Yelpers’ friends noticing the good words being said about your business doesn’t hurt either.


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