Many years ago, back at the dawn of Yelp in New York City, I became a figure of legend: A member of the Yelp Elite. This was back in the heady days of 2006 when there weren’t that many Yelpers and even fewer with the Elite badge. Going to Elite events was tons of fun (similar to our own account) and I got to sample a lot of questionable liquor, fine wine, and gourmet food. Like all good things, this came to an end rather quickly. Once Yelp took off in NYC the Elite events got harder to get into and a lot less pleasant to be part of. Kind of like the social parts of Yelp itself – there are just too many people involved now. (And there are the mounting complaints of extortion to boot.)
Though it’s been over three years since I gave up my Elite status, my ears perked up immediately upon hearing about the new Google City Experts program. Google hopes to build up the company’s Local area with tons of good reviews, and so they’re doing exactly what Yelp did back in 2005: Offer an incentive to users to add content to your coffers and reward those who do with exclusive, free events. I wanted to see how it compared to being Yelp Elite, so I signed up and quickly added a ton of reviews to my Google+ profile in order to qualify before the next event.
Once all of my qualifying reviews went up I got an email inviting me to a wine tasting tour on Long Island. After answering the Google+ Events invite, registering via a Google form, and confirming I would come via my Gmail, the day finally arrived and I set off to reap the benefits of being an expert at New York City.
We met up at Google headquarters in the Village to take an hour and a half bus ride out to Long Island. The first thing I noticed once we started boarding the bus is that everyone seemed to know each other. And I do mean everyone. There might have been two or three others who were new to this like me, but I did not find them right away. The City Experts branding is new, but it turns out that Google Local “power users” have been getting perks like exclusive events and parties for around two years. Unlike the Yelp Elite, this really was a secret cabal.
Perks get old really fast if you’re enjoying them with people you don’t like, and if the entire setup lacks a sense of community.
I didn’t have time to feel lonely and friendless on the bus ride since Google brought along a sommelier to explain some of the finer points of wine making and tasting to us. By the time we arrived at our first winery, everyone on the bus at least knew the basics. We got a chance to walk among the vines, see the metal and wooden drums and barrels where wine is made and ages, and of course sample many different types from three vineyards. The community managers encouraged us to take tons of pictures (we obliged) and made sure to meet and chat with everyone.
When I asked how they chose wine tasting as an event, community manager Traci C. said that it’s the kind of thing people from NYC think about doing but don’t since it can be difficult to arrange travel. In a city full of many who don’t have cars this is a valid point. Doing the trip on your own could cost over $100 per person with everything Google included.
I have to give the community managers props for arranging a great outing and facilitating a good vibe among the folks on the trip. We had plenty of opportunity to just chill and get to know each other and everyone was friendly and welcoming. It reminded me of the early days of Yelp Elite events. Back then, Yelpers felt a camaraderie with each other that extended beyond the Talk boards and the occasional free vodka tasting. A lot of that was due to the excellent NYC community manager we had at that time. He knew all of us, followed our reviews, and chatted with us on the boards. The same is true here. Several people mentioned how much they appreciated that the community managers knew their names and clearly remembered them from event to event. Traci followed me on Google+ the next day, as did many of the other interesting people I met.
And that’s what will probably keep me coming back to these events time after time, more than even the pull of perks. Free stuff is great, exclusive parties do indeed make me feel fancy, and getting to go places I wouldn’t normally be able to is awesome. But all of that gets old really fast if you’re doing it with people you don’t like, and if the entire setup lacks a sense of community. Right now, that’s what City Experts has – in NYC, at least. And I’m down with being a part of it as long as that lasts.
Of course I also know it won’t last long.
Google isn’t doing all of this to build community for community’s sake. They want to have a huge database of user reviews to improve the Local and Maps experience. Ever since the company stopped pulling in data from Yelp, looking up a restaurant, cafe, or other local businesses was almost pointless unless you just wanted to know the address and directions. Want reviews, pictures, insight? Good luck. Only a sliver of businesses have that data in abundance via Google. Five years from now that won’t be the case. It probably won’t even take that long for Google, since is has resources and reach Yelp didn’t back in the day. And that means that the pool of City Experts is going to grow and grow fast.
So get in on this now if you want to enjoy it. City Experts is currently available in seven cities in the U.S. – Austin, Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Francisco – plus a handful of cities in the UK, Australia, and Japan. Enjoy it while you can, before it potentially meets the fate as Yelp Elite.