Reading Yelp’s S1: Rapid Growth, Amidst Challenges

Yelp’s S1, which was issued last week as a run-up to a $100 million IPO, reveals a lot of new data about the reviews leader. The big question about Yelp has been whether it can grow against increased pressure from Google, and also begin to take market share away from traditional media players such as Yellow Pages.

Yelp’s plan for growth relies heavily on overseas growth. It is now in 22 international cities on top of 43 domestic markets. But it would also grow its primary business via local and brand advertising; monetizing mobile services that now make up 40 percent of its searches; boosting revenue from deals (where it has lowered expectations); and more revenue sharing dollars from restaurant reservations and travel.

Launched in 2004, Yelp had initially risen to the top of the heap among service and city guide leaders by dominating Google’s organic local search. After Google’s effort to acquire Yelp for $500 million ended under murky circumstances, Yelp has seen its prior dominance of Google search fade away. Moreover, Google Places – enhanced by Google’s purchase of Zagat — now looms as a competitor in its own right for reviews and advertising.

“Our success depends on our ability to maintain a prominent presence in search results for queries regarding local businesses on Google,” notes the S1.

Yet, Yelp is growing splendidly, even with the apparent Google woes. Yelp earned $47.7 million in 2010 and $58.4 million in net revenue in the first nine months of 2011, representing 80 percent growth over the first nine months of 2010.

During the nine months of 2011, the company claimed 19,000 paid accounts – up 75 percent from the same period in 2010, And 529,000 claimed pages –up 114 percent. And in a business where the number of current reviews is its currency, it has an archive of 22 million reviews, up 66 percent from the same period in 2010. Overall, it sees 61 million monthly users.

Yelp is primarily known for its restaurant reviews. That is still its primary image, and what has made “to yelp” a verb. But Yelp is also more diversified than generally perceived, and resembles a combination city magazine/Yellow Pages.

Restaurants and dining now make up 23 percent. Other major segments include shopping (22 percent), services (10 percent); beauty (9 percent); arts and entertainment (8 percent); Health (5 percent) Night Life (4 percent) and Travel and Hotel (4 percent). It also has a broad demographic, with 42 percent between the ages of 18-34, and 33 percent between the ages of 35-49.

What investors will be looking at is not only Yelp’s ability to grow and move into new areas, but also it’s potential for profits. The company has accumulated a deficit of $32.1 million since its launch, and lost roughly $7.6 million in the first 9 months of 2011. Sales and marketing costs have been especially heavy, eating up $38.5 million for the first nine months of 2011.

Business Insider suggests that “Yelp is Groupon without the cash flow,” basing its comment on Yelp’s increasing marketing costs for customer acquisitions. But to us, Yelp is working to get over a tipping point. And unlike Groupon’s one-time relationship with local businesses, Yelp is working on Yellow Pages-like renewal rates.

In fact, the key to Yelp is to continue its ability to maintain and leverage its huge user base; satisfy advertisers; and stay abreast of social media trends that help match users with establishments based on their interests. It won’t be easy and is not a sure thing. But Yelp’s trajectory to date has been an impressive one.


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