Yelp originally got into mobile in a kind of "back door" way a couple years ago, with Palm building the first Yelp mobile app in Q3 2006. Since that time mobile has become more and more strategic for Yelp, with each successive app release offering richer functionality, including augmented reality.
The rise of local-mobile "game" FourSquare and to a lesser degree Gowalla has threatened to steal some of the buzz and "cool factor" that is part of Yelp's public image and appeal for younger users. Neither of these sites has many users compared to Yelp and their "nature" doesn't yet make them mainstream enough to be a true threat to Yelp, which is a much more utilitarian site and app. (Local-mobile "check ins" or friend finding don't originate with FourSquare, BrightKite, Socialight and others had this earlier.) But Yelp isn't taking chances.
The new release of the iPhone app offers a number of features partly responding to perceived market demand and partly intended to match FourSquare et al and prevent them from stopping Yelp's momentum in mobile. Here's the upgraded feature list of the iPhone app update:
There will now be a leaderboard and a new category of "Yelp Regulars," frequent visitors or patrons of local businesses. This is a broader version of the FourSquare mayor concept. According to Yelp:
"Regular" status can be achieved by frequent patronage - or checking in - of a business. This title will show up on a user's profile, next to reviews and tips and on the business page in the iPhone app, as well as eventually on that business listing on Yelp.com. The Regular with the most Check-ins will not only be featured on that business page, but get to wear the golden badge of honor. The moniker can also be lost if patronage wanes, so Regulars must visit a business often to keep it.
FourSquare is getting (or trying to get) local businesses to offer some incentive or deal (e.g., free drink, appetizer) to the "mayor," the most frequent visitor to a local business. In this way it is essentially morphing into a mobile loyalty program of sorts. Yelp is doing something similar with "Regulars" but with potentially much broader application:
Will Regulars get access to Special Offers or Exclusives? It'll be up to the business owner if they want to offer exclusives to Regulars, but it's super easy to upload a Special Offer. For almost two years now, Yelp has offered business owners the ability to post free announcements that appear on their business listing on Yelp.com and our iPhone and Android applications. In fact, businesses have posted over 200,000 special offers on Yelp to date.
On Yelp there will not simply be a single mayor but a larger category of "regulars," who might gain access to special offers, coupons and deals from local businesses. Here the pieces come together for Yelp, which has a 200-person-strong telephone sales force to promote mobile and special offers to local business owners. And the strength of the Yelp brand doesn't hurt either.
This new version of the Yelp iPhone app sits at the nexus of social networking/mobile friend finding, LBS and mobile couponing and loyalty.