Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yelp, Google and Consumer Reviews of Lawyers

Late last week, Google and Yelp looked like they were ready to join forces - to the tune of $500MM+ for the Yelp team. Now, the deal appears to be off. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn't, but it did surprise me what a non-story this was for lawyers looking to advertise their business online. Why did that suprise me? Because it was a huge story for other local advertisers.

ExpertHub operates in the Bay Area, and Yelp is incredibly strong here. It's amazing how many small businesses have tapped into Yelp to build their businesses. I recently found an auto mechanic through Yelp. In general, my expectation for the techno-savviness of local small businesses is pretty low. However, I was impressed with this shop. Great service and you could tell they were using a lot of low cost technology (i.e. automated email follow up, email coupons, etc). When I showed up for the first time, the guy at the front desk asked me how I found them - I said Yelp. He smiled and clicked on the Yelp field on my customer record . . . seemed as if he hadn't clicked on anything other than Yelp for some time. I also recall a conversation at a cocktail party with a pediatrician in San Francisco (she is the wife of one of my classmates from school). As a relatively young doctor, she had built a flourishing practice is no time in San Francisco - almost completely through Yelp. Interestingly, neither one of these success stories pays Yelp anything, but apparently enough local businesses do to keep 200 staff at Yelp busy and to interest Google in spending a pretty penny for the company.

However, in the last 18 months, I've only come across a handful of lawyers that generated a material amount of business from any consumer review sites, including Yelp, Google, and even Avvo. As a consumer and market researcher, I look for good review sites for lawyers and have not come up with anything particularly interesting. I think there are two reasons for this:
  1. Consumer review sites are pretty easy to game. The only way you overcome this is to have a lot of reviews. The way you get a lot of reviews is to have a lot of interactions with consumers. This generally isn't the case with legal services. If you hire a divorce attorney, DUI lawyer, or want to file a personal injury lawsuit, it's pretty unlikely (hopefully) that you are back in the market in 6-9 months for the same type of attorney. I saw the Yelp COO speak at the last Kelsey Group conference and he mentioned that it took 18-24 months in a market before they had enough reviews for the product to be valuable for consumers. He also mentioned that they did and continue to invest a ton in technology to screen out fake reviews. Its hard to find any examples where you have 4-5 lawyers that all have 20+ reviews so that you can make an educated decision (that is, one that is not easily gamed).
  2. Chances are, a consumer's opinion of the quality of a lawyer they just worked with is not a signal for the true quality. Several obvious reasons for this: a) you may not know the quality of the work for years to come (as in, my prenuptial agreement is terrible but it was written 10 years ago), b) you only get one shot at a case, so its hard to say whether another lawyer could have done better or worse and c) you probably need to be another lawyer, or know quite a bit about the law, to know whether or not any individual work product is high or low quality.
Clearly, consumers of legal services need a better way to evaluate prospective attorneys. However, it does not appear as if Yelp is the answer - at least not yet.