A few months ago I noticed that Yelp, one of the media darlings of local search, had hired Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz to update their SEO strategy. As a former Yelp competitor I had spent a fair amount of time studying their local SEO tactics and I thought it might be helpful for my readers to provide an overview of how their strategy has changed and what the results have been. Apologies to any SEO newbies as this might be a bit of info overload. Here goes:

If you’d like to see a narrated presentation of my analysis I am testing a new service in extreme beta called Goldmail. I put it together kind of fast and the images are not so great but it’s late and I am losing my voice so cut me some slack. Give it a try here.

According to the Internet Archive it looks like Yelp made these changes some time in early July of 2007. Compare the home page from July 1, 2007 to today’s (make sure to disable cookies in your browser).

More City Links on the Home Page
Old Home Page:
They used to show links to a couple of cities and then offer a “more cities” option that takes you to a city directory. I am not certain, but I think they may have been using your IP address to show you information for your city on the homepage. For more about why this is a no-no check out Geotargeting Location by IP Address = SEO Death.

Related Post: How To Add a Business Listing To Yelp. Good if you need to update your Yelp listing too.

New Home Page:
Links to 27 cities now appear at the top of the home page. It appears they have chosen a mix of cities with the largest populations (e.g. New York & Los Angeles) along with a few cities that have strategic value or perhaps the most content (Berkeley, Palo Alto, Oakland). Despite being national, Yelp still seems to have the biggest following in Northern California so it makes sense to promote these cities and grow the base.

Why the Change?:
In local search the “City Home Page” is one of the most interconnected pages in the entire site. Theoretically any page with information about a particular city would link back to this page and the most important content in the city would be linked to from this page. So it makes sense to prioritize this in the architecture and make sure that these pages get crawled the most often.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the wholesale use of the “NoFollow” tag throughout the site. Here’s a list of the types of links that Yelp is now nofollowing:

– Any link that requires membership to see the page

– Links that divert the bots from efficiently drilling down to business profile pages via the following route – City Page > Category in City Page > Business Profile Page.

– In most cases any links that don’t lead to these pages are tagged as “NoFollow”

– All Navigation links except for “Talk” & “Events”

Why the Change?:
This should be no surprise to anyone who has been following Rand’s blog over the past six months. Strategically nofollowing links is now a standard part of the SEO toolkit. The idea is to not pass any SEO power (not a great term but I loathe the current industry standards such as “link love” or “Google Juice” – sounds like dialogue from a techy porn film) to pages that they are not trying to get ranked and to concentrate on the highest value pages (i.e. those that capture the highest search volumes or highest ad dollars) such as “Plumbers in Pleasanton”. Most of the navigation links are not to high value pages except for the Talk & Events links, which both contain a lot of potential local search queries.

An interesting tactic they are using is to tag the links to businesses featured on the home page as “NoFollow” in favor of only linking to Category Pages. I am not sure I agree with this tactic as the Business Profile Page (BPP) takes the most clicks to get to via the above route so I would think you would want to offer the highest rated businesses the chance to get a boost from having a direct link from the home page and the City Pages. My guess is that they are interested in targeting the maximum amount of SEO value to the Category Pages as a single Category Page can usually generate far more traffic than a single BPP.

They also may want to take advantage of the semantic relationships (I can’t believe I now use that term in daily conversations) that can be derived from the bot following the right path to the BPP. In English this means that if the bot hits the “Restaurants in Palo Alto” page before it hits the “Mondo Sushi” page that it will be more likely to associate Mondo Sushi with the term “Restaurants in Palo Alto”.

Business Listings Site Map
You’ll notice in the footer there now is a line of letters and numerical links called “Business Listings”. Each link leads to a directory of links to businesses that start with the appropriate letter or number. There is also a “Newly Added” link which leads to a list of businesses that have been recently added to Yelp’s database.

In theory these links are a good idea as they provide an alternative linear path to the bots getting to all of the businesses in the database, but with over 10,000,000 businesses in the system I wonder how effective this method is. For instance each letter page is broken down by sub-pages like “Aa – A16”, “A1a – Aaa”, etc. Rand has spoken out on his blog about the drawbacks of providing these alternative path solutions that add numerous low-value pages to the site which can be a bot distraction. That said this is probably a better way to get a bot to a BPP v. hoping it crawls every Category Search Results Page. I like the “Newly Added” feature as this provides a way to get new businesses in each city seen quickly. Possibly the best part about this strategy is they provide a different set of these directories for each city. So you can see newly added in Atlanta, etc.

Yelp has had extensive alternative path sitemaps in their footer for years – see the Review Directories and Talk Directories. I have always wondered how effective these were. I guess they couldn’t hurt and I have certainly been guilty of stuffing footers for internal linking benefit, but I think at this point Yelp doesn’t need these tactics. They are likely getting well crawled and their site architecture is fairly flat. Of course “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a good SEO maxim.

I should note that the Search Directories links they use are an exception. If you click on these you will see pages for the top cities that display a list of category links using a variation of the category names to help them rank for various searches. This is a great tactic and I give them big points for doing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this tactic is responsible for 90% of any uplift they have received from these changes.

So that’s the home page. I’ll be back tomorrow soon with my analysis of the Category Landing Page, Category Search Results Page and Member Profile Page.

Of course if you want to cut to the chase check out Yelp’s Compete stats.

End of SEO Analysis.

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26 Response Comments

  • Ben Saren  November 12, 2007 at 7:57 am

    Excellent stuff here Andrew!

    Will you we see you at ILM later this month?

  • Andrew Shotland  November 12, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Yes. I will be speaking on the Keyword Research panel.

  • Michael Dorausch  November 12, 2007 at 8:14 am

    Lot’s of details Andrew, love posts like this.

    Aren’t you in SoCal soon?

  • Zak Nicola  November 12, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Great article, very insightful.

    Your advice on the semantic relationships between the “city restaurant” page and the BPP page are spot on.

    This is the first time I’ve come by your blog, looks like I might have to return.

  • K Schnepp  November 13, 2007 at 10:49 am

    Andrew –

    Excellent post! Looking forward to your analysis of the secondary pages.

  • Andrew Shotland  November 13, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Thanks Kent. Love the orange.

  • boris  November 22, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Wow… I a bit of a newbie but most of what you addressed made sense to me.

  • Andrew Shotland  November 22, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Glad to hear it boris. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Colin Bruce  May 15, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Does the nofollow tag do such a good job of directing the bot in the most accurate manner? I haven’t seen it concentrate traffic down the desired path with much success?

  • Andrew Shotland  May 15, 2008 at 10:27 am

    The nofollow tag doesn’t direct the bot to go one way or another. In theory it prevents the passing of pagerank from one page to another. I am not 100% sold on this technique but it’s not very difficult to implement so it’s worth a try.

  • Roy Sencio  May 15, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Different search engines interpret the nofollow attribute on links differently. For Google, if a nofollow link is found on a page… attribution is not passed on (no link love) and the page is not indexed either. For Yahoo its different, and so on.

  • Shari Thurow  May 29, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Hi all-

    Sculpting (or rather, attempting to sculpt) PageRank on the basis of a nofollow tag is very short sighted and (in my opinion) ineffective.

    I don’t look to Rand Fishkin or anyone on his team as an expert on information archecture and information retrieval. There are more educated, trained, and skilled experts out there.

  • Andrew Shotland  May 29, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Hi Shari,

    I’d love to hear more about your experiences with “sculpting” and why you think it’s short-sighted and ineffective. I can understand the ineffective part (although I have seen it be effective, but not 100% of the time) but not sure I get the short-sighted part.

  • Jason  May 4, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Excellent post and good information. I will second that on not liking the term “link juice” and “Google Juice.”

  • cyn  November 7, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Great article. This is good info.

  • Jeremy  February 4, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    thank you for shedding light on that information.
    In what way are you a former Yelp competitor?
    have a great day and thank you for taking the time.


  • TJ  July 30, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Always good looking back at old posts and then looking at today’s current Yelp site structure. Can learn a lot from some of your older posts. Thanks for the insight.

  • GLADvertising  August 12, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    So we have to thank Mr. Fishkin for the nofollow tag on yelp? THANKS A LOT! Kidding…

  • Asher Elran  April 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Just bad experience with yelp, sorry but that is the true, also i just want to make sure that everybody know that:
    Location by IP Address = SEO Death.
    Location by IP Address = SEO local – it good!

  • Steven  April 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Hey thanks for this. I’ve always wondered about the SEO side of Yelp. Great for someone like me who is getting into the local SEO scene. Thanks again!

  • Sean McCracken  August 5, 2011 at 1:27 am

    Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the posts. Yelp seems to be growing with the SEO side.. I know when looking for local businesses right now Yelp is all over Google search.

    Working in Real Estate myself.. As an agent using it with clients helps with getting ones name out into the world.

    What do you think about their mobile side?

  • Dane  August 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Good insights, very interesting to see how yelp works there seo. Not a big fan of yelp it seems that only the people that pay yelp get there reviews added to google reviews

  • Comment Spammer  October 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Yelp is good for restaraunts and bars but everyday business like banks or drug store your going to get nothing but bad reviews who goes to Target and says that was such a great experience i should blog about it , never it’s always bad reviews that people post

  • Tyler  May 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Sure from a consumer standpoint Yelp is foodie dominant, but really it’s solid source for a quality Google Places citation, which is the true player for ‘local SEO.’

  • Mike the Mover  November 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I have used Yelp since 2008. It has helped me and a few of my competitors, but it is a double edge sword. You will attract some Trolls, but you have to sell the heck out of a good review to balance it out. Most people are not motivated by good experiences, unless they are expecting something bad to begin with.

  • Dane  November 3, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    I’m not a fan of yelp its a place for people that like to bitch when things don’t go there way and there stock recently shows how people feel about yelp as it tanks