I signed into Yelp today to check out all the reviews that had been written since yesterday and guess what I found? A great new review on Happiness is Quilting! (http://www.yelp.com/biz/happiness-is-quilting-mckinney).
Why am I so obsessed with review sites? I finally figured it out. It’s been a process. Several years ago, my husband and I bought a small hotel. I built a web site for it. It didn’t take long to find that my list of activities in the area was how people were finding me. So I started looking for more activities. The best places to find them are the review sites. I was not real familiar with the area and I was skeptical of the official city sites. I was afraid all the language would be rosy or really boring “sights” would be listed because they are scrambling for something, anything, to attract tourists. I wanted to see a range of reviews so that I’d have a bigger picture. I hadn’t written any reviews at that time.
That started when we moved to St. Petersburg, FL and practically none of the little independent hotels along St. Pete Beach were listed on TripAdvisor. TripAvisor is huge. It is an international site that focuses only on tourist attractions and accommodations. I couldn’t let that pass. The hospitality industry had not fully recovered from 911 at that time and I knew what they were up against, competing with “the big boys”. So I went to the beach and took photos of all of the independent motels and submitted them to TripAdvisor, who then added them to their site. These are all nice motels right on the beach. That’s how I got started. It was a natural extension from there to start visiting and reviewing the attractions in my area. I became a “local expert” for St. Petersburg and would watch the discussion forums and answer any question I could. If someone asked about a property I didn’t know anything about, I would drive out on the weekend and check it out and report back. After all, I really didn’t need much of an excuse to go to the beach.
Then TripAdvisor started the “Insider Pages” – basically a tourist wikipedia by tourists for other tourists. I wrote everything I knew or could find out about where I lived, where I played and where I worked. I also wrote up some information on McKinney. Anyone can edit it. Anyone! (hint, hint)
When we moved back to McKinney, I continued to put reviews on TripAdvisor but we didn’t have a lot listed in the way of attractions. I did send in some suggestions of businesses to list but it can take awhile for them to be listed and our attractions here are different from Florida. We don’t have a lot of cheap, outdoor sights to take in. There is downtown and The Heard and pretty much everything else is sports-related or a spa. TripAdvisor is not big on listing shops.
In fact, that is how I ended up on Yelp. I had gone to The Grenada Theatre in Dallas and wanted to write a review to suggest where the best seats were. Although I submitted it twice, TripAdvisor said that it didn’t meet their guidelines to list. So I did a search to see where it did fit in. I found Yelp.
Yelp is devoted to reviews on local businesses by local people. It has a very active social networking element. You can have Yelp friends and they publish a newsletter of what is really “hot” at the moment in the area. You can review anything with an address – your mechanic, your hair stylist, your favorite shops. If they don’t already have the business listed, you can add it yourself. That’s big. There is no lag where you have to write your review and then hold on to it for, potentially, months waiting for the business to maybe get listed. That’s nice.
Something else that is nice about Yelp is that it is for the McKinney area so you’ll see reviews written not only in McKinney but reviews for Allen, Melissa, Wylie, Frisco, etc. The only downside is that we are lumped in with Dallas so most of the activity is related to Dallas and really not as close to us as they think. You can bookmark a business if you see a review that piques your interest. Yelp lists out the top 5 bookmarked businesses as “Hot on Yelp”. For instance, Thrill of the Hunt Thrift Shop in Allen is currently the second-most bookmarked business in the area. It sounds neat and I’m planning to check it out sometime soon. I would never have even heard of it if it weren’t for Yelp.
I started reviewing on Yelp and then I got to going downtown a lot. Pretty soon, I realized that I wanted to say “Hey, there’s a great sale here” or tip people off to a specific cool buy. That really doesn’t belong in a review. It belongs in a blog. And so I found WordPress. WordPress is free and you can be up and running immediately. Just sign up, pick a theme and write a post. The only investment is time. That can be as substantial as you would like. You don’t have to know any HTML or CSS. No acronyms are necessary at all. Everything is in English and the only thing you have to write it your actual post.
So now I post reviews on TripAdvisor when I travel and on Yelp for everything else. I don’t pretend that they’re especially good. It’s just that they exist. It creates the possibility that someone else will become interested in that business and go check it out for themselves. Some of our downtown businesses have fantastic websites. Some have none at all. But that is only half of the battle. People won’t find those websites unless they know to look for them.
There are a number of initiatives locally by the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau to shop locally and to be a tourist in our own town. I would like to encourage people to take it one step further. Shop locally. Enjoy our city. I mean really take a double-take and look around at what we have. There is just something about McKinney. And, then, tell other people about it. Take a camera. Post reviews and pictures. TripAdvisor and Yelp are just two sites that are good for this. There are others. It doesn’t matter where you put it, just throw it out there. Let people know what a cool place McKinney is, not just “tract mansions” and chain restaurants. Honestly, I talked to someone recently who thought that that was all we had. Facebook is good but only your friends will see it unless you have no privacy settings at all. (Flickr is very popular for posting photos and Shutterfly has good shares sites that are very easy to use).
So, it’s that easy. Shopping here is a no-brainer. Dining out here is easy. And I don’t mean one of the chain restaurants that have million dollar advertising budgets from the national office. Try the place where the owners are in the restaurant working and living down the street. I guarantee that they have to work harder than their big-chain counterparts who can coast on a nationally provided rep.
Wouldn’t it be nice to use a sunny day to go visit the Heard? Erwin Park? Old Settler’s Park? Pecan Grove Cemetery usually has a Memorial Day celebration. Is it that much more trouble to upload some photos of your adventures on TripAdvisor or write out a few words on Yelp to let people know what you think is really worth checking out?
So, that’s my thought for today. Remember, if you didn’t like something, don’t be mean. Be constructive so that management can fix it. Be honest and sincere. Don’t review something you have an interest in (like your own business). It’s okay to like some places and love others. You have to have some kind of span for review readers to take you seriously. (Personally, I don’t usually write 1 or 2 star reviews except on lodging because people really do depend on knowing the bad as well as the good when it comes to accommodations. They don’t have to buy anything in a shop but you’ve got to pay for another place to stay if your lodging is substandard).