Why Google Is Yelping for Help

Search giant can't buy love from users

What does Google want with the raucous online reviews posted on Yelp?

The search giant is reportedly in talks to buy the San Francisco-based Web startup for $500 million.

On the surface, Yelp doesn't seem like anything special: The San Francisco-based Web startup offers a collection of user-written reviews of local restaurants, retailers, and services, combined with some basic search functions.

Google could duplicate its functionality easily. In fact, it already has, letting users note and review local businesses in a feature on Google Maps called "Favorite Places."

What Google hasn't figured out how to do, though, is to encourage users to post these reviews in the prolific volume that Yelp's users -- known as "Yelpers" -- produce.

It's an age-old problem for Google, which is better known for its computer algorithms than its human touch.

CEO Jeremy Stoppelman built Yelp's community one party at a time. When the company was first building its presence in its hometown of San Francisco, Stoppelman was a fixture at events Yelp sponsored, luring its reviewers to new venues while cementing their bond with the site.

Google executives have never applied that kind of personal attention to building community. It's why Google's Picasa is no Flickr, why Google News is no Digg, and why Orkut is no Facebook.

Google's best example of user-generated content, online-video site YouTube, cost it a staggering $1.65 billion, and is widely believed to be bleeding cash. (Google, for its part, hasn't given details but insists that YouTube's finances aren't as ghastly as has been reported.)

So that's why Google appears to be ready to open its pocketbook once again. Over the course of a decade, Google has thrived on its ability to index and search the Web's content. But it has never figured out how to encourage its creation.

Google's pursuit of Yelp has been an on-and-off courtship. Google executive Marissa Mayer, who oversees consumer products like Google Maps, gave an interview to Yelp community managers last year, sparking rumors that the companies were talking.

If the deal goes through, will we start seeing Mayer, known for his fondness for San Francisco society events, at declasse Yelp parties? If we do, we'll know Google is serious about connecting with users.

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