On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman talks about why people are just now “waking up” to Silicon Valley’s dark side. Stoppelman’s company has feuded for years with its much larger rival Google, which Yelp says has unfairly weighted local search results to its own product.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the person who left you a one-star review on Yelp, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network. Today in the red chair is Jeremy Stoppelman, who I’ve known for a long time. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Yelp. Jeremy has been on the show before, back in December 2015. We have a lot to catch up on. He’s one of the first people that was on this show. We’re going to talk about everything that has changed since then, which is a lot. Jeremy, welcome to Recode Decode.
Jeremy Stoppelman: Thanks for having me. Good to be back.
How you doing? What’s going on since 2015?
It’s been a while.
Oh wow. A new president.
Gee, just a few things.
Let’s check in. What’s going on at Yelp? What’s been happening there since we chatted? We talked about a lot of things then. A lot of things are the same, a lot of things are different.
Yeah, I mean Yelp continues to grow. We’ve got a really big mobile app these days.
Everything’s mobile for you guys, right?
Yeah. Lots of reviews. We sold recently a company, Eat24, that we had purchased a few years prior.
Right. I do want to talk about that.
Yeah. We got into the food delivery space and then it kind of changed on us and we got out of the food delivery space.
We’ll talk about that more in detail. How do you look at the company now? A lot of people thought you would have sold the company by now or gone public or whatever. How are you thinking of it right now? It’s one of the grandfather companies, really, of web 2.0.
We’re not that arthritic yet.
Yes you are. Not arthritic.
You know what I mean. You guys have been around.
We do our yoga and Pilates and stay limber.
Yeah, I know, but you’ve been around for a long time.
Yeah, I think that’s the thrill.
How old is Yelp? How old is?
I think I’m going on 14 years there.
14 years, right. How are you looking at the company now? As a private company, obviously it has to be making money because you couldn’t be ...
Public company. I’m sorry, it’s a public company. How do you look at the space?
I see it as a very large space, so local search is huge. Things with local intent is a huge percentage of search. There’s a lot of categories. There’s a lot of revenue in advertisers to be signed up, so it still feels like a very long runway for Yelp.
What have been the overall trends? Mobile, obviously. We talked about that last time, is that everything is mobile. Is there nothing that’s not mobile for you?
No, mobile is kind of the big story. Obviously we started as a regular old website and then invested early in the iPhone and had our app take off, but there is transition now. I think consumers expect not just to find information but then be able to transact, and so that’s been a big emphasis for us building out Yelp’s platform, enabling consumers to get quotes, for instance, from our Request A Quote functionality, being able to make reservations at restaurants, add themselves to the waitlist at very popular places, like lots of cool transactional stuff. Remote control for your life. I think Matt Kohler might have invented that phrase, but I’ve stolen it.
You were, again, one of the earliest apps on the platform. Were you in the first?
Yeah, we were in the first bunch.
You were in the first bunch.
I think there were about 200 apps at that time.
Right, exactly. I can’t even imagine, how many are there now?
200 million. I don’t know, a lot.
When you were doing that, the idea is that you just sought information that people were ... and put up reviews and things like that and people on the go would have it. You had a lot of places, kind of.
It was a pretty remarkable moment because Yelp was about reputation of local businesses and local businesses have an address. One of the challenges of using Yelp way back when was knowing the user’s location, especially when they were on the go, and so the iPhone changed that. We realized very quickly when it was born and that there was going to be an app platform, that that would make our service better. For us, it ended up being, we’ve got to win this.
It felt like a new starting line for the company, so we took it very seriously. I mean, it was controversial inside the company because of course you have this new platform, not that many people have iPhones yet, but it did feel like a really important moment for the company.
You had built your business on the web, which everybody had.
Yeah. It takes, I guess, an act of humility to say all the stuff that we built before, it might not actually matter five years from now all that much.
Right, and you made the transition compared to other companies. A lot of them didn’t.
When you’re thinking about what’s happening next, how do you look at this ... talk a little bit more about the transaction model because I think a lot of people, they have individual discreet things like OpenTable, I only use it for reservations or I use Resy or whatever. I’m just using restaurants as an example, something that I use a lot. Talk about why one site for doing that, because you can transact with a plumber, you can transact with all kinds of people.
So often I talk to people that maybe have one of these transactional apps, but then also love Yelp content and then they’re complaining about why do I have to balance between I go to Yelp and then I go to this other app.
I don’t think I’ve made a restaurant reservation on Yelp.
Well, you got to get on that.
I don’t know why, I just bounce.
We have thousands.
No, I know.
Between No Wait and Yelp Reservations, there’s something like 8,000-plus now on the platform. A lot of good places. Consumers, they don’t just want to find the information. They also want to take that next step, and so we’re trying to add that functionality wherever possible.
What’s the fastest-growing area of that?
Request A Quote has been on fire, so the home and local services area is really hot for us. We also make a lot of money. It turns out those businesses ...
... spend a lot on ads and leads.
Right. That’s all they are, right? That’s all they need because they’re on other platforms.
It’s infrequent. You don’t need a roof hopefully every week or every month, you need it once every several years or something like that.
As a result, those advertisers are willing to pay up for that opportunity to advertise their services.
Right, and that was on what service? Like Angie’s List?
They’re one of the players in that segment of the space. We go very horizontal. There’s a lot of vertical players out there. We cut across all of them, which we think is a pretty unique aspect of Yelp. It’s kind of a one-stop shop for information, and then it’s on us to provide transactional services to fill in each of the verticals.
It’s kind of a living Yellow Pages, essentially. Yellow Pages with more information.
Yeah, that was part of the premise of starting the company in the beginning is we felt like, hey, there’s this big opportunity at the Yellow Pages, it’s still a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S. alone and nothing has disrupted it. This is back in 2004. We felt like if you can create something better than the Yellow Pages, something better for consumers where it wasn’t just a book of ads, that could be something valuable.
Sure. When you’re thinking about where it goes next, if you’re going to cut, right now it’s quotes, restaurants. What other areas could you do that in?
There’s spas, salons, all those sort of personal services. Pretty much anything with an address, you can find valuable information on Yelp. Then depending on the business, it may or may not make sense for us to help you make that next step. There might be ways to integrate further to allow you to transact. Things like finding an incredible park to go to on the weekend, I don’t think we’re going to do a transaction around that, but it’s still a useful reason to use Yelp.
Right. When you’re thinking about where you’ve been, how does that inform what you’re doing? In running a company for 14 years, what happens? I’m really interested in you in particular because I think you’ve been through a lot of ups and downs of the business. How do you look at — and you’ve gone through lots of things, possible sale, investments, public offering, everything else. What have you learned in that journey so far?
Oh where do I begin?
Entrepreneurs want to understand this.
Yeah. It is a really cool job in the sense that it changes every few years, and it changes dramatically. If you go back to 2004, what was my job? My job was really to be a product manager in a lot of ways. It’s designing what does the product look like, what’s the functionality, working with the engineering team, doing a little bit of business development to get data, those kinds of things. Then once you actually get some traction and build up a team, suddenly you have more of a real leadership role and you have to start communicating and doing all hands. Every few years the job is reinvented, and I think fundamentally that’s the reason I’ve stuck around is it’s just so damn interesting.
When you’re doing that, what kind of skills ... what I want to get at more, because we have a lot of entrepreneurs listening, what are the skills you have to develop? Not a lot of founders stay with companies always. In tech, they do more than other places, I think, but there’s a learning curve that many aren’t able to climb.
Yeah, I think at the beginning for a lot of tech companies, it’s about product and engineer. As the company grows, it really becomes about people. You have to be able to seamlessly transition between those two major subject areas, and I said maybe that’s where certain folks step out is maybe they’re really good at product engineering. They’re not people persons and maybe they don’t want to become people persons, and so they step back and let someone else do it, but I’ve found both enriching and interesting and fun and challenging, and so I’ve really enjoyed the role as it’s changed and as I look forward.
How do you get better at it? Again, I don’t mean to say Yelp’s under the radar, but it’s one that’s just slogged along.
You know what I mean.
I’d say it’s been a pretty hectic.
I have slogged along, too.
I think we’re heading towards $1 billion-ish in revenue in 2018. That’s pretty legit.
Yes, no, I get that, but I’m saying it’s a building and a lot of people don’t do that. They haven’t done that. They often sell out or they move along.
Yeah, and there were those moments I thought, “Oh maybe we are going to sell the company. This certainly looks interesting.” And then it doesn’t happen. I guess at that point you could say, “Well I’m done and I want to do something else,” and hand it over to someone, or you could say, “Hey, it’s still just as interesting as it was before that offer came in,” and you recommit.
How many people do you guys have now?
Probably north of 6,000.
Wow. That’s mostly engineering, right?
No, it’s ...
Engineering’s probably in the several hundred and sales is in that many thousands.
Right, all across the country. When you look at where it’s going next, how do you map it out? Do you map it out in five-year or ten-year? I’m bugging you about this because I think it’s important for people to understand that day-to-day management.
I’d say a three-year horizon is about as far out as I really focus. I think five years in Silicon Valley, it’s like we’re pretty good at thinking linearly but we’re not very good at thinking exponentially.
What do you mean?
Just the innovation cycle is actually kind of exponential. If you go back to the singularity is near, it’s like when you see on a timeline the rate of innovation, it seems like it’s accelerating. Our brains don’t work that well at understanding the implications of that, and so I’d say you do kind of see out just a few years and it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen beyond two to three years.
What do you think about right now?
I think about how do I make sure that Yelp is just as important two to three years from now as it is today? How do I make sure that we have a bigger audience? How do I make sure that we’re more successful? How do I make sure that we’re a better partner for advertisers. How do I make sure that consumers love us? All of those things. I obsess about those things because fundamentally that is the challenge of a tech company is how do you stay relevant in a constantly, rapidly changing world?
Right, that’s what I’m trying to get at. What are you most concerned with then? Is it just the change or is it not being ... What’s the thing that you spend most of your time on then?
It’s thinking about what’s coming down the pipe, what’s changing about the world that you live in? What’s going on with the competitive landscape? How do you stay ahead of the competition? I feel like we have the best content about local businesses, but three years from now is that going to be enough or will competitors have okay content and therefore we have to have something even better? It’s figuring out what are the new weapons to put in your arsenal, so to speak.
Local, what are those new weapons? A lot of people feel local is not addressed. A lot of people feel local news isn’t addressed, for example. What do you think the key issues around local are right now?
I think it’s continuing to build out the content moat that we have an edge in, and then it’s also building out these transactional ...
It is a moat. I like the word moat.
It is a moat, I would say. We try to make it a moat. Then you want to strengthen it, you want to deepen the moat, put alligators in it.
Do you see that alligator thing on Twitter? Sorry.
What is there, an alligator thing. Oh the baby, yeah.
No, a big alligator ended up in someone’s pool in Florida, but go ahead, sorry.
Oh okay, there was some other alligator meme as well. Maybe it was a crocodile, I’m not sure.
Sorry, get back to the moat, your alligator moat.
The transactional services, I think, is another potential deepening of that moat. If you have all of these unique transactional services, you marry that with your deep content moat, suddenly it’s this very special place not just to find information but then also take that next step, that makes it that much more sticky.
One of the things you did at, it was Eat24, why did you get into that and why did you get out? Just saying it’s competitive is ... You got into it for a reason. What was your thinking?
Yeah. We launched the Yelp transaction platform right around the time of the IPO, and definitely we were thinking about the food delivery space, which was just emerging at that time and there were a lot of players, and so our thought was, “Hey, we’re just going to open it up, be an open platform, the players are going to come in, we’re not going to have to get into the delivery business. We’ll just let everyone else duke it out.”
What happened is basically everyone besides Grubhub jumped in. Some of the newer folks didn’t show up until a few years later, like Postmates and DoorDash. A bunch of people jumped in and invested in the platform with us, and Eat24 was an outlier in its performance, and we had a great working relationship and they were really responsive to all of our feedback and ideas.
It became a good match, and I think they saw the writing on the wall that, hey, this is getting to be a very competitive area, and they actually were bootstrapped. They never had venture funding. They raised their hand and said, “Hey, we think we’re going to get out. As founders, we’ve taken it as far as we can go. We’re going to sell the business. Are you interested?” They were actually our No. 1 partner at the time. It lured us into the business because they’re like, “Well we’re definitely in this space. We want to marry our content with transactions.” Eat24 is our best partner. Grubhub isn’t really interested right now even though we had the occasional conversation about transaction platform. It just seemed like the right move. None of the delivery network stuff had taken shape. Uber was probably tiny and the idea of it going into Uber, all that craziness that now you see, none of that existed at the time we were making that decision.
Right, so you had Caviar and all those.
No, Caviar wasn’t ... At the time that we were buying Eat24, I don’t even think Caviar was launched.
What made you decide not to do it, then?
We were at the point where we felt like, okay, this delivery network thing, having your own drivers is really important. For a while we were worried that it wasn’t going to pencil. It was going to be too expensive, but it seemed like at that point, okay, people are figuring this out. It can be done. Are we committed enough to this space to invest the probably hundreds of millions of dollars required to get a delivery network up and running and compete more effectively in the space? Just as we’re contemplating that decision, Grubhub said, “Hey, let’s talk about our grand.” They had a vision for what if. What if we did this deal that we had long been talking about but never executed?
Uber Eats and Google, Amazon.
Yeah, they’re facing their own pressures. What if we take Eat24? And it made so much sense for both parties. It was an easy deal to make. There wasn’t a whole lot of drama. It just kind of happened.
Right. What it points out is that you do something and then it just doesn’t work and you move on. I do that a lot.
I wouldn’t say it didn’t work, in the sense that we sold it for a much higher price than we bought it for.
What I mean is it’s not your wheelhouse, that’s what I’m saying.
I think building out a delivery network is, yeah, it’s a commitment. We were at a point of, are we going to really commit to the future of the food delivery space ...
Or do you have better opportunities elsewhere?
... or is there a way to focus on what we would prefer to focus on? We never really wanted to build a delivery network.
All right, we’re here with Jeremy Stoppelman. He’s the CEO of Yelp. We have talked before. We’re talking about where Yelp is today. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
We’re here with Jeremy Stoppelman. He is the CEO of Yelp, which is, everybody knows what Yelp is. Everyone. You want to explain it to people?
It connects you with great local businesses.
That’s good. That’s a nice little ...
That’s our purpose.
That’s your purpose. When you talk about that, you got out of the ... we just were talking about the food business. You got out of that. What do you think about getting into? Just more content, more of what you are? I just interviewed John Chen from BlackBerry recently and he was talking about that they have to focus on the things that, when he was trying to recover the company, that people knew it for security, the keyboard, systems that people could manage better for phones and stuff like that. You have to drill down to what you’re really about.
We really focused on, aside from the transactions thing, which we talked about, there’s the restaurant area of Yelp, which we’ve always been good at restaurants, but it’s how do we get even better.
That does dovetail into some of the transaction stuff. Then there’s home and local services where we monetize really well. We’ve created a really compelling new product, Request A Quote, in the last couple years. It’s taken off, and so it’s continuing to build out that area, create more value for advertisers, but also creating an incredible consumer experience.
With Request A Quote, you can submit your job ... Maybe you’re looking for someone to clean your office or what have you, and you can reach out to several people at the same time, have conversations within the app, it’s very convenient for consumers.
What about news? Have you ever thought about getting into it? I’m just curious because news and information, NextDoor does that obviously. Ring now does it, which I find interesting. My Ring app tells me about what’s going on in my neighborhood. Have you ever thought about getting into that?
Yeah, we’ve dabbled here and there with some experiments. We had some headlines in the app with one experiment a while ago, but we’ve never gotten super serious about it. I think a lot of the engagement in that area comes from the crime stuff, like the crime blotters. There is something about it. I don’t know that that’s a great fit with Yelp.
“Don’t go to this restaurant because you could get mugged.”
Yeah, there’s like a police blotter app that my fiance is really obsessed with, and it’s terrifying. She’s living in fear now as a result.
You don’t want to know. You don’t want to know.
It’s interesting, you want to know what’s going on around you, so I get it.
Right, but local, not news.
You know, never say never, but it’s not a focus area.
What about new technologies? How are you looking at AR and VR? We talked about this a little bit the last time we talked? How’s that going to change? The iPhone changed your business rather dramatically. What do you imagine the next big thing of changing your business is?
One of the coolest technologies that we’ve been finding use for everywhere — and it’s kind of a cliché buzzword at this point — is machine learning. It’s been really powerful. We use it to analyze photos now, and so we can separate, “This is the exterior of the business, interior of the business, this is the food, these are the cocktails.” It’s adding very real tangible value in poring through our data.
It’s also had a powerful impact in the way that we sell, so we’re able to figure out which leads to prioritize based on evaluating signals coming in. That’s kind of the most tangible right now, what is the biggest technology for us. AR, we were the first app in the U.S. to launch an AR feature, I’d like to remind everyone out there.
What did you do?
It was Yelp Monocle. You don’t remember Monocle?
No, I don’t. Tell me. Explain it to me.
Oh my god, it was huge. I think that the year was 2009 or something like that.
Okay, a little early.
Real early. Still early.
It was built by an intern, and basically you’d hold up your phone looking, say, down the street. It has the video camera on and so you’re seeing a video feed of down the street and then it would overlay what businesses are in that direction and what their star rating is.
It did have this feeling of “it’s from the future,” and it was the gift that kept on giving. People were talking about this feature for the next four years.
Where is it now?
I think there’s still a way to access it actually.
The intern is in the closet.
The intern moved on.
It’s a good idea. Why not bring it back?
No. I think it was good to show the possibilities, but actually the engagement with it wasn’t so important that it was worth investing.
What makes that? I think that is something that’s going to be a big deal in local, the ability to walk around with glasses or your phone or something where you get signals constantly. I know Apple’s obsessed with it.
I think there probably is a point where the technology is so good that you have a contact lens in that you’re wearing anyways, and then it can highlight like, “Oh here’s the rating.” There is some super “Minority Report”-style functionality somewhere 20 years from now.
“Would you like the fleece?” Remember that?
He walks into the Gap, he has the new eyes, and it goes, “Did you enjoy the fleece from last time? Would you like to look at some culottes or something?”
Yeah, there you go. That kind of stuff. I’m sure there’s ways to incorporate Yelp information that are very future-y and cool. There’s definitely some stuff you can do with recognizing signs and augmenting menus when you hold the phone looking at a menu. It could put up more information about dishes. We’ve dabbled and looked at that stuff, but it’s not a game changer.
Right now it’s a phone and the website. Let’s get to search, because that’s been the biggest issue for you.
Oh yeah. The Google. How is that relationship going? You ping me all the time, which I like.
I ping you?
You do. You write me those thoughtful notes. I appreciate them.
I appreciate them. Most people don’t write me thoughtful notes.
I try to win people over when I can.
Usually it’s, “I can’t believe you said that about me.” I’m like, “Just relax.”
No, you always say nice things.
Warm and fuzzy.
I don’t believe that’s me.
Isn’t that your brand?
No, it’s not my brand in any way. Talk about Google, where you are. You obviously famously have been in a tussle with them for a long time, more than a tussle, over search, and they have only expanded their offerings on Maps and elsewhere. Can you talk about were that is right now?
Yeah. The relationship is the relationship. I would say we’re encouraged by all the stuff that has happened in the EU.
Talk about that. Give people who don’t know what that means ...
If you go way back, there was an FTC investigation of Google into search bias and scraping.
That’s a kind word, investigation.
2011, I believe, is the timing.
There was also some antitrust panel that I spoke on around that same time. The U.S. basically did nothing, which was disappointing, and from my conversations around that time, it was very clear that Google was on this problem from Day One. They knew that this was going to be a thing, and Eric Schmidt was the guy at Novell who saw the entire playbook from the other side and so I think as Google really took off and he realized, “Hey, we’ve got a probable monopoly here. Here’s the playbook for how do we do better than Microsoft.” They’ve executed that playbook flawlessly. It’s very impressive.
Why didn’t our government do anything? We’ll get to Europe in a minute? Was it tech friendly?
Well, you had this incredible interview I like to cite with Obama, where he talked about the Europeans’ interest in big tech.
He did. I was shocked by that.
It’s just protectionist. That is straight out of Google PR government relations speak right there. That was very troubling and disappointing to watch.
I believe my answer was, “Come on.”
It makes me sad.
Unrelated, weren’t you on Pod Save America recently?
I’ve noticed, maybe I’m just too, I don’t know, cynical about these things, but I’ve noticed when they talk about big tech, they’re always talking about Facebook. They almost never mention Google, and they’re all ex-Obama people.
Yeah, Google’s hidden in the shed. Someone just ...
It’s like they might have a throwaway comment, like, “Google,” but it’s like quiet and it’s off to the side.
Someone from a competitor said Google’s plan was they want to be quietly off to the side while Facebook runs into walls every five second.
To be fair, Facebook’s running into a lot of walls. We’ll get to that in the next second.
Yeah. If we’re going to talk about privacy and tracking, you can’t have a real conversation about Facebook without talking about Google.
Right, absolutely. We will get to that. They didn’t do these, they absolutely gave them a pass, the Obama administration gave ...
Yeah, they gave them a pass, the FTC gave them a pass, and then the conversation shifted to Europe. At first it was ... well, before [Margrethe] Vestager, there was [Joaquin] Almunia. That did not go well. Almunia was about to do a similar settlement to what the FTC came to or was just not going to be anything.
Miraculously, the conversation got turned around, the investigation got turned around at the very last second, and it became politically infeasible, I guess, for him to sign off on a quick deal with Google. It got passed to Vestager. She’s been incredible. She’s been brave.
She’s Danish. She’s Danish, politician, and very strong-minded. I interviewed [Margrethe Vestager] just recently.
Competition chief for the EU. She’s been relentless.
Yeah, she came out strong, I would say, fair and objective. She’s not looking to get anyone. She hit the reset button and I think has kept the pressure on and has really pushed the conversation in Europe around antitrust, around search bias, and around privacy, frankly. She’s been ahead of the curve, and it’s been unfortunate to see U.S. lawmakers throw stones and so forth. There’s obviously been the lobbying effort back in the States to put pressure on her, but she’s remained really strong and so we continue being encouraged by their process. They obviously took a swing with the shopping case, and I don’t think the net result with that was satisfactory to them.
Right. I know.
The onus was on Google to fix and address the shopping issue where they were biasing results to their shopping section. I think the consensus in Europe is that it’s not sufficient, and so the onus is back on Google to solve that. Where we come in is obviously, and I think their hope, the EU competition folks’ hope is to create a framework that then they can apply to other verticals such as local, and they’ve said so much publicly that local is another interesting area that this could apply to, whatever the remedy is.
What happens next there?
I think, I’m not familiar with exactly the timing but I think there is an onus on Google to better address the concerns, and then we’ll see if the EU then extends to other verticals.
What about in this country? Recently I’ve been interviewing a lot of politicians, all Democrats were quite anti Google and Facebook, you know what I mean? Like Cory Booker and Senator Warner. If they get in power, it’s a different situation. I don’t know where Trump is on these things. He’s never mentioned Facebook or Google. He focuses on Amazon right now.
I think strangely there’s bipartisan support for scrutiny of big tech. Particularly around the misinformation stuff that’s happened, around privacy and around search bias. I think you hear it from both sides. It’s not universal, it’s not everywhere, but there is real interest in a way that frankly hasn’t been there since I’ve been looking at this area. There’s also interest from AGs now. Missouri has opened a case.
Why do you keep at it? You’ve kept at it for a long time. You’re one of the few companies that speaks up about it, discusses it. Is it because these companies still remain so powerful? You seem more powerful than ever and startups seem less in the driver’s seat than they used to.
I’d say specifically for me, I’m motivated because I believe we have the winning argument. I believe that the approach Google is taking is fundamentally unfair. They have their thumb on the scale, not just in local but other verticals, but obviously it applies and has impacted Yelp. I think as a result, they’re depriving consumers of the best content. Their original idea, they would make fun of what they’re doing today.
The 2004 Google, the Larry Page, Sergey [Brin] Google would make absolute fun of the search results you see today. They pointed to Yahoo and they said, “Look at Yahoo! They’re trying to trap you in their ecosystem. They don’t want you to get to the best of the web. We’re going to create a turnstile that’s going to send you to wherever the best content is. If it’s Google, great. Google, you keep it. If it’s somewhere else on the web, send them on.”
Google has gone away from its roots. It’s no longer focusing on the user. I think consumers are starting to ... people are starting to wake up to the fact that Google lulled them to just sleep. They provided great results for many years, but in certain areas they’ve eroded.
Well, shopping, Amazon has sort of run the table on them in that area. Now you have Amazon running things.
Amazon’s a whole different conversation, but in the local field, it’s like if you’re searching for a pediatrician, you get Google’s property, it takes us. Especially on mobile, you see nothing but whatever Google has, and I can tell you Google doesn’t have a whole lot.
How do you then keep pushing back on that? You’ve obviously grown your business. Do you need the government to intervene here?
Obviously we live in reality, and the government is not the speediest at dealing with these situations, and so we just find our way. I’d say Apple is an example that has taken a much more balanced approach in local. Essentially different content providers play off one another, so in hotels you’ll usually find TripAdvisor. For restaurants, you’ll often find Yelp, sometimes you might find OpenTable content. It’s more of a level playing field. It is possible to be fair and balanced.
When we get back we’re going to talk about Apple and Facebook and other things in Silicon Valley in general and where Jeremy thinks it is. We’re here with Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp, and we’re going to take another break for a word from our sponsors.
We’re here with Jeremy Stoppelman. He is the CEO of Yelp, and I’ve known him forever. Jeremy, since we have been around forever, you and I, I’m not saying we’re aged, but we’ve been around. We’ve seen a few things, right?
Gosh. This is the first time I think in an interview that I’ve been described as aged.
You’re not that young. Well, 14 years is a long time.
Thank you for breaking the seal on that.
Aged. By the way, congratulations on getting married, finally. She’s lovely. I know her, she’s the same person. She’s fantastic. I don’t know mean to say you’re ... but 14 years in Silicon Valley, what do you think has changed here? I think there’s been a perceptible change, besides the giant enormous amounts of money these people have made, including yourself, presumably. What do you think has changed?
So much. My favorite example is when I originally pitched Yelp to a venture capital firm, me and my co-founder Russ went in in our usual t-shirts and jeans, and when the junior VC person came to give us feedback, he was like, “Look, I got to tell you, their No. 1 disappointment was that you pitched in jeans and t-shirts. They were really upset that you did not dress up for this presentation.
Oh my god, you’re kidding. Wow, okay.
A lot has changed. I think if today an entrepreneur came in a suit and tie, they would be laughed out of the room.
That would be cool. Right. Let’s get down to the real stuff. What do you think about the soul of Silicon Valley, a lot of people feel like there’s some problems going on. I am one of the people that has been a massive scold over the past year and a half about this idea of growing up, becoming more mature, taking responsibility. You are powerful, you are rich, you have something to say. I was very particular about how they kowtowed to Trump on the immigration stuff initially. Talk about that. Where is the timeline for Silicon Valley and innovation?
I think innovation is doing perfectly well. I do think there is ... we’ve been talking the talk for the last decade, let’s say. We’re changing the world. We’re making the world a better place. “Silicon Valley,” the show, loves to make fun of that, but it’s true. That has been out there, that’s something that I would say most people in Silicon Valley would like to believe.
I think we’re waking up to realize, oh, in fact a lot of big companies, presumably under pressures to grow and satisfy Wall Street, end up focusing more on growth and making money than sticking to some set of core values that are aspirational. It’s almost like in some ways Silicon Valley as a whole has lost its purpose. If it’s purpose really was, “Hey, we’re really trying to have a positive impact,” just focusing on technology and growth might not be enough to have a positive impact. You might have to actually make decisions that hurt growth.
Or just assume you’re just a big old company, right? I was thinking this the other day, when a lot of the Facebook executives get on Twitter and feel victim-y, they’re doing their victim-y dance right now a lot of the time, and at one point, Boz, Bosworth, when he said, “Maybe people will die,” that memo, and instead of being like, “Oh god, we really have to be more mature about this,” their thing was, “We can’t talk now.” I was like, “You know, the people at ExxonMobil don’t think like this, that they should say everything that comes into their tiny little brain.” They just don’t. They don’t have to express it. I think there’s this disconnect between their power and who they are and who they think they are.
Yeah. I mean, I think ...
They think they’re benign and earnest.
I think there is not great empathy at the top of these organizations, frankly. I don’t know. There’s some research that suggests as you become wealthier and more powerful, your empathy actually drops. I’m not the academic expert on that, but it does feel like there is some disconnect that you’ve rightly pointed out. I think it’s hard to put myself in their shoes, but I would hope that I would just open up as much as possible and try to talk to people as much as possible and try to share as much data as possible and really embrace the reality of what’s happened politically and how you may have played a role in that kind of thing.
I get it’s a very complex situation. You’ve got lawyers talking over here, you’ve got employees over here. You also have the political spectrum. It’s like, well, if you crack down hard on fake news, all of a sudden you have all these fake news people yelling at you saying you’re partisan. It’s not as easy as it looks, I’m sure.
Yeah. It’s really interesting, I did an interview with Mark last week when all this stuff broke out. He said, “Well I don’t want to be sitting at my” — and he’s repeated it since — “sitting at my desk in California making decisions,” and my thing was, “Well why did you build it then. You built it, so you have to run it.” It’s sort of weird that he has particularly distanced himself from his creation. “Well, sorry about Frankenstein. I didn’t mean to, I’m not the one that has to run this thing, right?” It was very interesting.
I would say for Mark, at least he’s kept the title of CEO. Look at Larry. He, I think probably wisely, anticipated, “Oh, Google’s really going to be turning the screws on everyone because it’s kind of maxing out on its gross. Our tax on society is going to get higher.” That’s got to be a painful job. “Why would I want that job? I’m going to create this new entity called Alphabet, and I’m going to let this guy Sundar take all the heat.”
“You’re never going to see me again.” Right.
Why are we talking about Sundar when we should be talking about Larry?
Yeah, I 100 percent agree. He’s on Mars, I think.
Why does one of the wealthiest, most powerful people who’s in control fundamentally of Google and YouTube and all these entities that we care about doesn’t talk to anyone?
I agree with you. We tried to reach him, just to be fair. We tried.
No, that’s great, I’m sure.
There’s no answer.
It seems like no one can get to him.
He might not exist. Let’s be fair, he might be gone somewhere. He might be.
That’s true, but we should know that.
Yeah, that’s true. We wouldn’t know that, though. They could make it, start a rumor.
I think one of the most troubling things about the situation we find ourselves in is that there is so much power consolidated in the hands of just a few leaders that are not accountable fundamentally to the people.
Obviously the press can harass them, governments can try to regulate them, but they are massive, they’re powerful. They have huge amounts of lobbying dollars, lobbying firms. Good luck trying to get a lobbyist if you’re not Facebook or Google right now in D.C. We’ve actually had that trouble.
We tried to get a lobbyist.
They’ve hired Mark.
It’s like, “Oh well, sorry, we’re conflicted. Google, Google, Google, Google, Google.”
Yeah, they zero you out. Which is the way they do it. It’s like lawyers, the same thing. You conflict out. You conflict everybody out. What do you in the face of this? Are they going to be changed by this? Will there be regulation? Do you see it coming? There’s people talking about it, and this is the first time I history I think they’re a little nervous about it. It could be Microsofted.
I think it’s possible. Obviously, you mentioned Microsoft, Google’s been executing the playbook very flawlessly on how to not be Microsoft.
Not do that.
They’ve been far more savvy.
I think Facebook’s going to drag Google in here. That’s my family.
Yeah. One thing that’s new is there is a bunch of new FTC commissioners waiting to be approved, so that is a little bit of a rest to that group, but it’s hard to predict. I think we have to stay tuned.
What would regulation look like? What would you want?
We have focus on the user that talks about our issues specifically within kind of the search bias realm and local where we show it’s possible to create essentially a level playing field for local content.
What else? What do you imagine should be ...? Because at some point you don’t want the government to be doing too much. You could easily argue Microsoft lost all its mojo — although it’s still a very powerful company — but certainly I remember when everyone was terrified of Microsoft and then not so much.
Well there is a revisionist history that certain people put forth that the lawsuit against Microsoft did nothing.
I would say the lawsuit hit its peak I think around maybe beginning of 1998, and Google was born around the end of 1998, and right around that time you may remember that Internet Explorer was getting all this proprietary stuff built into it. ActiveX controls. They were planting the seeds to control the web.
I would say that the DOJ’s effort there did gum up Microsoft. A lot of people will say that Bill Gates recently had some quote suggesting that, and quit Microsoft soon after that. I would argue — and I think Gary Reback, the attorney involved on the other side ...
Ah, Gary Reback.
... would strongly argue as well that it had a massive impact ...
... to create oxygen and opportunity for companies like Google.
Netscape died for Google.
I think we’ve just been very passive. Have you read the book “The Chickenshit Club”?
No. What? There’s a book called “The Chickenshit Club” and I haven’t read it?
What’s it about?
It’s about how we lost our will for enforcement and prosecution.
I’d say the thesis is something like post-Enron ... Enron was kind of the last hurrah. We had the financial crisis and nothing happened.No on got fired.
I would call that another Obama administration failure is they didn’t want to make waves. I’m sure it was a scary situation. All the banks are saying they’re going to die if you do anything or go after anyone, but they did nothing. I think there was some smoke signals sent saying, “We’re not into prosecutions. We’re not into heavy-handed enforcement. Unless a case is open/shut, we don’t want to deal with it.” That’s where we are today.
Do you see that happening? You think this shift is Trump administrative? He hacks tech quite a bit. It’s kind of in an odd, inaccurate way, pretty much always.
God, it’s hard to speculate where the administration is going to end up on this stuff because obviously we all see it, it’s all over the map.
Or they’re not even thinking about it.
I can’t speculate on whether it helps or hurts. It’s random.
Are they allies to you now or not? I’ve never seen them mention Google or Facebook, really. He won’t mention Facebook because the Russians are on there.
I wouldn’t say it’s a clear messaging strategy. I don’t know where their position is. Obviously there’s been a lot of comments around Amazon lately.
Well, he doesn’t like the Washington Post.
He doesn’t like the Washington Post.
That’s really what it’s all about.
I don’t have a sense for how does he feel about Google and Facebook right now.
I don’t think he thinks about it. I don’t know, but the agencies do. In terms of where ... so we’re talking about he has to do now, I’m going to finish up talking about that. What do you imagine? You’re one of the leaders of Silicon Valley. There’s a whole bunch of them. They’ve been also through not just that but the #MeToo stuff that’s been going on here. There’s been a lot of reckonings. Uber was a whole big black eye on Silicon Valley, the beginning of that. They’re trying to clean that up, Dara Khosrowshahi, he’s trying to clean it up.
How does Silicon Valley, maybe it’s not a monolith. When I interviewed Tim Cook the other day from Apple, and he was like, “We’re not the same.” I know people at Microsoft is, keep us away from Facebook because that’s not ... But I’ve heard people in lots of other company call it a contagion, that everyone gets sick when one of them, either the Uber or the Facebook or whatever gets in trouble. What do you imagine has to happen? That people will differentiate or what?
I would say there are definitely differing schools of thought. You could argue that Facebook maybe had a libertarian bias, where it was like, “Hey, we don’t want to touch stuff. We don’t want to police too much.” You got Peter Thiel on the board there, [Marc] Andreessen on the board there. That could play a role. I don’t have any deep view into the board dynamics there, but I’d say Tim Cook has a point, and that all companies are not created equal. All companies have differing leaders. Not everyone falls or would put themselves in that libertarian like anything goes kind of camp.
Right. One of the things I’ve always argued with Mark about and just recently, they don’t want to have values because you have to argue about values. You have to pick values that you have, and I think in having none, it creates a worse situation because then you’ve created the mess and then don’t have your values to stick with it. Even though they say they have values, I’m trying to ...
Yeah, I think one thing that I’ve seen to be really important is developing your values early and applying them early because it’s, as you can see from Facebook’s position now, it’s extraordinarily difficult to have this thing that is massive, that’s essentially a monopoly all over the world and say, “Okay, now we’re going to create the rules.” Then you have different factions saying, “Oh your rules hurt us.” You have power dynamics that apply. If Facebook a decade ago or more ...
Had said these are the rules.
... said, “No, we’re not going to tolerate this. We’re not going to take political ads,” whatever it is, if they could have anticipated how their service could have been misused by certain actors, then it would have been easy to nip in the bud and you don’t really get accused of being political like they are now.
What is that sort of blindness toward that? I do think that one of the things I’ve noticed from a lot of companies here is the idea that they don’t anticipate the negative aspects. They always make the argument that innovation can’t happen if you’re negative, which I think is a canard.
I’m not sure. I can speak to my own experience of running Yelp, you are able to make decisions along the way that can optimize along different dimensions. One example is very early on we saw that there were reviews being written by local business about themselves.
Yes, cheating, yeah.
We very quickly developed, at the time a rudimentary, but now much more sophisticated algorithm.
You got dinged for it.
We took arrows in the back and continue to take arrows, but less so recently, knock on wood. We took a lot of flack for that, but it protected the integrity of the site. But not only did we pay a PR — a long PR and continued PR — price, but it also slows our growth, because our growth for many, many years came almost exclusively from Google. And if you have more content, fake or not, Google would send you traffic. We decided from the get go, no, we have to be a trusted service. We have to do the very best.
You don’t want ...
It’s never going to be perfect, but we have to do the very best we can to crack down ...
You don’t want to attract the shitty content.
... on the bad actors and keep the content as clean of biased content as possible. That’s painful because you see other entities out there. Even Google, actually, uses all sorts of tactics.
Fake news. You were fake news before there was fake news. Fake reviews.
Well, that fake news probably, but even in their local product to try and compete with our quantity of reviews, they started taking star ratings and deflating their numbers and doing all sorts of little growth-hacky tactics. You as a leader, can make very real decisions that can have either wonderful ramifications or terrible ones.
I don’t know what the trick is to anticipate all of them. I’m sure there’s been plenty of situations where I’ve stepped in it, but I think that is one of the critical jobs of a leader is to try and figure out what are the things you’re doing that are maybe small right now but can cause problems later.
There was actually one very recently that we had which was there had been a rise in ... there’s these new businesses that help you solicit reviews for your local business. At scale, they just blast your customers, what have you, to try to drive reviews, but that creates a very biased platform. If you let that flourish, then all of a sudden everybody who’s paying for reputation service gets an advantage on your platform, which corrupts the platform.
We decided to take a crackdown approach. Whereas, all these companies wanted to pay us money. In fact, I had realized we had a few of them that we were sharing some review content with, just on a monitoring basis. They weren’t supposed to obviously solicit reviews to Yelp, but it was just, I had to draw a very clear line. We can’t work with these companies, our integrity is too important. We have to protect the consumer.
Over easy money and maybe some incremental growth, yeah.
Right. Last question, that’s an excellent way to end it, but when you think about something you’ve done, either good or bad that — again, we have a lot of entrepreneurs listening — what would you say is something, and I don’t want to say you learn something from it, but what’s a mistake you made that you corrected or what’s a piece of advice you’d give to an entrepreneur? Obviously have character, which you were just saying just a second ago.
I mean, A mistake off the top of my head is a little tough. You should have sent me your questions beforehand.
I cannot do that.
I could have prepared a really good, relatively innocuous mistake. Actually it ties, perfectly dovetails ...
You can do a piece of advice.
I’ve got one. It perfectly dovetails into where we landed on the reputation stuff, and the recommendation algorithm that we have, that very first cut of it, what we did — and this echoes some of the stuff today — is we removed reviews and then they just kind of disappeared. If you had a business and we thought some of your reviews were spammy, our algorithm just took them off your page and left everything to mystery. That definitely was part of what stoked the fires, the initial PR fires of, “Oh, Yelp is manipulating the reviews for advantage,” or to sell ads or what have you. It never was, of course, but it just created this mystery, mysterious behavior. One of the ways, one of the things that did help a great deal, didn’t necessarily solve the communication problem, was just being more transparent about it.
Right, you have to be today.
Obviously talking openly about it as much as possible, creating a video to educate people, but then also even showing the content so that at the bottom of every local business page, if we’re not recommending some of the reviews, we’re setting them aside because we’re suspicious or we don’t know enough about that user, you can actually see it for yourself and still read it.
That’s interesting. That is a great piece of advice. I just was talking to Jennifer Palmieri. She said that was the mistake of the Clinton campaign is whoever is going to run in the future has to be absolutely transparent to the point ... and that’s the one thing she said about Trump, whether you like his lies ... he usually lies on Twitter. Today he did like six of them, but it feels like he’s communicating almost constantly. She said if you don’t do that as a politician, you can’t ... and as a CEO, I agree. You have to.
Yeah. I wouldn’t say that he’s sort of ...
No, but I’m talking about ...
The best example of speaking candidly.
No, no, no, no. Of course not.
But I think the way that he speaks because it is in an unfiltered manner ...
... in a way that always shocks us, it has the appearance of being not political because it’s like ...
You’re adding also, “Tell the truth.”
Look, I’m not couching it and all this safe corporate speak, I’m telling it like it is, but unfortunately when he’s telling it like it is he still has an agenda and is not sticking to the facts.
Right. The idea is to be, as a corporate leader, more transparent.
I don’t think you can go wrong with welcoming people in, showing them what you’ve got whenever possible. Sometimes it’s not possible. A lot of times you think it isn’t, but actually it is.
You’re right. Absolutely. Jeremy, this has been a great conversation. It was great talking to you.
Nice to see you.
Thanks for coming in. You’ll come by in two more years?
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.