Yelp: The Next Dating Site

Victoria Vertal met her husband Steven on the Internet. The couple met online, got coffee, then fell for each in real life. But this scenario is missing one key element of the e-matchmaking archetype: a dating website.

In an e-mail, Victoria described the relationship's trajectory like this: "We became yelp friends... then real life friends... met for coffee.... and then well, we fell in love. :)"

Singles don't consider Yelp, the online service for reviewing local businesses, among Internet dating options. But as a social network in which people create online personalities and then judge and interact with each other, it can (and does) facilitate cyber romance.

Most social networks ask for roughly the same basic information as any dating site. Yelp asks members to create a profile by uploading a photo and answering some pseudo-personal questions -- favorite movie, website, general interests, etc. Other users can peruse these profiles and judge their fellow Yelpers not only on calculated profile responses, but also by reading the reviews they leave. Their commentary not only showcases one's favorite restaurants, bars, and other preferences, but also shows off the reviewer's voice and personality through tone and word choice.

As a community site, Yelp allows those logged in to check out any profile and then facilitates communication (some might call it flirting) via a message board-esque "talk section," private messages, and compliments. Users can also deepen and solidify connections with friend requests.

In other words, Yelp has many of the same components we're used to seeing in an online dating incubator, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to lead to romance. But it does. Yelpers are using the site's social elements to find and date their fellow reviewers.

Three years ago, Jenn wrote her first review on Yelp. Scott read her review, requested to add her as a friend, and now they're engaged.

After receiving Scott's friend request, Jenn developed a crush: "I read his profile," she said. "He was funny, and clever, and witty, and cute." But reading his reviews took it a step further. "You can tell a lot about someone from the way they write," Jenn said. "They have to be a pretty creative, intelligent person to write well. He had a sense of humor and an ability to look at the world and enjoy food in a way that was very similar to the way I saw the world."

Beyond its cyber communication features, Yelp offers a bit more than most dating sites by providing an "events" section where users can organize their own get togethers. In addition to these meetings, Yelp plans separate events exclusive to their "elite users" (active, talented reviewers officially recognized by Yelp).

Though Jenn and Scott had gotten acquainted online, they didn't meet in person until Jenn posted under Yelp's events section that she wanted to meet for brunch. Scott replied and they got together. They hit it off after their first meeting, but didn't start dating right away. Scott saw himself as the eternal bachelor. It took over a year of Yelp events and coquettish review writing for Scott to grow convinced. "I would try to be as attractive and witty and funny in my review writing for him," Jenn said. "I was always hoping that whatever he read of mine he would think I'm funny and clever and would think I'm a neat person for having written it."

Unlike traditional dating sites, Yelp eases users into dating. Instead of coordinating awkward semi-blind one-on-one dates, the Yelp events allow users to get to know one another in a group setting, where there are sure to be lots of others.

Victoria and Steven were both part of the Yelp elite squad and they attended the same elite parties, which Victoria admits "facilitated the growing relationship." After a year of Yelping, they married in 2008.

Most people don't join Yelp to find love. And Yelp community management team leader, Tiffany Childs, stresses that the site focuses on community building, not dating:

One of the natural elements of any [Yelp] community is to meet up in person and when you do that all kinds of relationships develop. On occasion, it is possible for those friendships to go to the next level and you do occasionally see people find a mutual interest, or love connection on Yelp. It's not necessarily what people are looking for.

But even if people don't flock to Yelp to find a husband or wife, the combination makes sense: people with similar interests often create lasting romantic relationships.

Like Yelp, other unlikely dating sites are starting to pop up. Just last week -- pre-hacking scandal -- Gawker introduced a dating service for its commenters. Using the tag #gawkerdating, readers are encouraged to post a want ad, picture, or whatever else might attract a lover on a special page. If a post strikes another Gawkerite, the pursuer can either respond to the message thread right there, or head to the commenter's page to send a private love note. Even though Gawker is not a traditional dating site, commenters have begun to use the tag in earnest. As commenter BSideBoston notes alongside his photo and interests, "Well, it can't be worse than any other dating site (can it?)"

It can't be worse than any other dating site because it isn't a dating site at all. But that doesn't mean it -- and others like it -- can't serve the same purpose as the conventional online mating destinations like OkCupid and eHarmony.