Yelp Ads Are Not A Rip-Off, You Pay To Seal The Deal

Yelp built its ad business by attracting users that know what they want, just not who to buy it from — exactly when ads are most effective. That’s why I find today’s VentureBeat piece by Rocky Agrawal titled “Yelp advertising is a rip-off for small advertisers” to be ridiculous. His sources say Yelp charges a $600 CPM, or 1,000-times the standard online CPM rate.

Yes, these ads are expensive, especially for low-end restaurants. But for lawyers, dentists, jewelers, and mechanics with a high lifetime average revenue per customer, turning someone searching for their services on Yelp into a loyal customer is no rip-off, it can drive big ROI.

Yelp sits at the end of the purchase funnel in the demand fulfillment stage. Users often already have a need for a business’ services and are prepared to spend. They go to Yelp to determine which service provider will get their money. When a user searches for “dentists in San Francisco”, Yelp local ads let advertisers put their own search result with a link to their Yelp profile at the top of the results.

For restaurants, a conversion could bring in $20 to $50 in revenue, and that customer will eat somewhere else tomorrow where they could get hooked. For a high CPM to provide ROI, restaurants need lots of customers to be swayed by their ads and turn into regulars. Yelp local ads might not work for them.

However, for more expensive financial, medical, automotive, real estate, travel, home, and professional services, these stakes are much higher. A single visit from a customer could earn an advertisers hundreds of dollars, their long-term business could be worth thousands, and they’re unlikely to switch if satisfied. If their local ads on Yelp net them just a few or even 1 new customer, they could earn significant long-term ROI.

Agrawal compares Yelp ads to Facebook ads, which doesn’t make sense because Facebook users aren’t actively looking for the service the advertiser is selling. He also says Yelp is overcharging advertisers. It’s only overcharging if the ads don’t produce results, not just because they’re priced much higher than less-targeted display ads.

If you want proof that Yelp provides value to advertisers, just look at Yelp’s S-1 filing to go public. It notes the massive growth and return-customer rate for its local ads business:

from the quarter ended December 31, 2010 to the quarter ended December 31, 2011, the number of active local business accounts increased by 109% from approximately 11,300 to 23,700. Of the approximately 23,700 total active local business accounts for the quarter ended December 31, 2011, approximately 15,800, or approximately 67%, were existing advertisers from which we recognized local advertising revenue in the immediately preceding 12-month period. (Page 56)

Yelp had a 67% return advertiser rate, and that would have been much higher if it hadn’t DOUBLED its local advertiser count in that year. If Yelp ads are such a rip-off, why are advertisers coming back for more? Yelp can’t say because it’s in its pre-IPO quiet period. It shouldn’t need to, though. It charges justifiably high CPMs, and is going to IPO, because its ads appear at the perfect time. And they work.