"The Best Kept Secrets to Growing a Brick-and-Mortar using the Internet."

The "6 Key Factors" behind getting a Restaurant to the top of the Yelp Rankings for a Desired Search Keyword.

If you've been frustrated with Yelp thus far, this is how you get the app to finally work for you.

(Reading Time: 5 minutes)

Guy on his phone searching on Yelp
If you're anything like most restaurant owners/managers out there,  you see the Yelp App as either a blessing or a curse to the food industry. If you're on the right side of the "local review app", you can bask in the all of the benefits that it bestows. If you're on the wrong side of it, however, it can be something that actually hurts your business and drives business away.

I've used the Yelp App since it debuted. I've also been a small business focused digital marketer for years. The reason that I'm writing this article is simple. I want to pull back the curtain and show you exactly how to get exactly what you want out of the yelp app (more sales via new and repeat customers) by helping you understand how to use their algorithm to your advantage.

What I'll be covering in this article:
  • Part 1: The "Yelp Ranking Rumor" that you should ignore (Pay-to-Play?).
  • Part 2: How Yelp Works and how it ranks businesses (6 Key Factors).
  • Part 3: How to build a "Yelp Ranking Engine" in your business.
  • Part 4: How to build your own "Yelp Ranking Engine" in 1 week (even if you're super busy).
Let's dive in.

Part 1: The "Yelp Ranking Rumor" that you should ignore. (Do you have to Pay-to-Play to rank high for a Yelp Search?)

An image of pinochio with a long nose.
One of the most common complaints about Yelp from folks in the Restaurant industry is that Yelp has become a "Pay-to-Play" only application. This meaning that you have to subscribe your business to their "ads" or "upgraded subscription" to show up anywhere in the rankings.

While it is true that using either of these paid options makes it easier to show up in Yelp for Search terms, it isn't the primary driver for ranking in Yelp. As a matter of fact, most people that use the Yelp app aren't as trusting of the "sponsored" search results and will immediately jump past them in favor of spots that have actual reviews and high star ratings.

While it is true that you can show up higher in the Yelp search rankings and eliminate some of the adds that show up on your listing by upgrading your business to a paid subscription, this doesn't necessarily equate to more folks actually coming into your business.

The secret to turning Yelp into actual paying customers lies in understanding how the core Yelp algorithm works and how you can take advantage of that for your restaurant.

Let's dig into the Yelp Algorithm and the most important factors that it takes into account when ranking businesses for keyword searches.

Part 2: How Yelp Works and how it ranks businesses (the 6 key factors).

an image of six yellow stars diagonally on a blue and pink background


Before you can start taking advantage of how the Yelp Algorithm works to rank your business higher for certain keywords, you need to have a clear understanding of how it works.

Disclaimer: No one outside of a few folks that work at Yelp really know all of the pieces of their ranking algorithm. What we're walking through below is based on our years of experience using Yelp and our results with helping restaurants to rank higher through giving Yelp what it wants. Please note that there are other factors, but these are what we have found that are the most important to climbing the Yelp Rankings fast.

The following 6 factors are the most important:
  1. Proximity to Location of the business to the searcher. This is how close a person is to your business when they actually do a keyword search (or how close the location they type into the search box is).
  2. How the Business Categorizes themselves in their profile. When you fill out your yelp business profile, you are asked to pick categories that your business fits into. This is an extremely important step that many businesses overlooking when claiming or setting up their business on Yelp.
  3. The Keywords a Business puts in their Business Description. This is another important factor that you can change instantly that will dramatically impact how Yelp sees your business. When filling out your business' description (think about how you fill out the items in your menu when thinking about this section).
  4. The Keywords people mention in their Reviews. Yelp is largely about what your customer say about you. What they say in their reviews is just as important as the start rating. Getting them to mention certain keywords in their reviews is an extremely important part of ranking for those keyword in the future (we have a whole strategy behind getting customers to talk about certain keywords in their reviews).
  5. The total number of Reviews a Business has. We never ask for reviews on Yelp. Thats actually against Yelps terms of service. What you can do is ask people to check into your business. If you do this strategically, they'll check in and review your business as well. Do it really well and they'll leave you a big positive review.
  6. The Velocity of Interactions (How frequently a business gets reviewed/checked into). This is one of the least talked about factors to ranking on Yelp but it's extremely important. It's not enough to get a lot of reviews and checkins. You have to keep getting them on a regular basis to be seen as active and "alive" to Yelps algorithm. The key to this is making sure that we continually nudge our customers into interacting with us on Yelp.
So how do we use the "6 core factors" above to our advantage? Simple. We build a "Yelp Ranking Engine" inside of our Restaurant that helps us take advantage of Yelps Algorithm (without breaking their terms of service). Let's talk about how to build that "Ranking Engine".

Part 3: How to build a "Yelp Ranking Engine" in your business.

a laptop on a chair


Remember, we don't ever want to "Review Gate" or ask our customer for reviews on Yelp directly. We want to nudge them in that direction by asking them to "check into" our business on Yelp.

So how do we do that?

We build something that we call our "Yelp Review Engine".

From above, our "Review Engine" looks something like this:
  • Step 1: We build a SMS list of our customers by giving away something small, but valuable inside of our business. (Please note that we are not giving something away in exchange for a review. We give something away simply so we can contact our customers later).
  • Step 2: We send them to a specialized optin page while they are eating at our establishment (via table toppers or in store flyers). We also send out business cards with our take out orders with a QR code and link to the optin page.
  • Step 3: We immediately send them the freebie or discount in exchange for the ability contact them later. A few hours after their meal and opting into the page, we send them a special message remind them to check in with us on Yelp and letting them know that it helps us to continue to deliver high quality service and food when they do.
  • Step 4: They leave us a review that contains many of the keyword we need (this is accomplished via the followup messages we send out).
  • Step 5: As those review start to become frequent, we increase our star ratings and our keyword based ranking on Yelp. That increased visibility sends more customers our way and they go through the same "Yelp Ranking Engine" and it becomes viral quickly.
It all looks a little something like this:

demonstration of feedback loop system for Yelp

Ok... Now that you understand how we're using technology and a little clever marketing to give Yelp more of what it wants (and we're ranking higher and getting more business because of that), let's talk about how to actually build all of that.

Part 4: How to build your own "Yelp Ranking Engine" in 1 week (even if you're super busy).

neon sign that says this is the sign you have been looking for.


One of the hardest things that restaurant owners and managers face is having to be a master of everything inside of their business. That includes the marketing a lot of the time as well.

Over the last few years, we've been lucky enough to take the marketing burden off the plate of tons of restaurant owners and managers. If you have any questions about how to build any of the above you can contact me directly here with questions and I'd be glad to help via email for free (a rising tide raises all ships). If you'd like some help building your own "Yelp Review Engine" and would like my full attention, we also have a very affordable package for any restaurant to get started (you can sign up for that here).

I hope this article helps you tame the beast that is Yelp.

Feel free to email me any questions you have at michael@notvanillamedia.com.

A photo of Michael on a cruise ship. About the Author

Michael Johnson is a Digital Marketing expert and the owner of the NotVanillaMedia Digital Marketing agency. He specializes in helping restaurants grow by leveraging the internet.

Home - - Contact - Copyright - Earnings - Privacy - Terms & Conditions - Disclaimer - Support
Michael Johnson, michael@notvanillamedia.com, 2020 Maltby Road Suite 7 #183 Bothell, WA 98021, 206-486-6267