Our series on local promotion for small businesses continues today with a look at the wildly popular review site, Yelp.

Whether you are an avid user of Yelp or have never used it at all, there’s no denying its importance for small businesses. Yelp’s mobile and desktop applications help users not only discover local businesses, but rate and discuss them as well. And unlike social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, your business can be found on Yelp whether you put it there or not. Considering that nearly 1.1 million reviews have been written on Yelp to date, that fact should give you pause. How many people have reviewed your business so far?

If you don’t know, take a minute to log on to Yelp.com and search for your business. Go on, we’ll wait.

So? If you did find a Yelp listing that you didn’t create, don’t worry. All you need to do in order to start actively participating in your business’s Yelp life is to look for the “Work Here? Unlock This Business Page” link below the business summary.

Once your page is unlocked, you can get down to business creating the best possible experience for your Yelp visitors. An optional first step in doing this is to start with a little competitive research. This is a smart tip proposed by Brian Casel on Social Media Examiner:

“Search Yelp for your direct local competitors and click through to their profiles. Take a close look at those with 4+ star ratings and those with 3 and below.

Try to distinguish the differences between those who are thriving on Yelp and those who are not. Do their photos set them apart? Does their website link lead to an impressive site or one that turns traffic away?”

Once you have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t among your competition, it’s time to set about creating a robust and visual experience for your visitors. Add detailed and complete info, add photos, and make sure you’re in the correct category (you’d be surprised). After that, check to see if you have reviews. Read through them and make notes about what your customers love, and what you could improve on. Comment thoughtfully on the reviews (positive and negative!) that warrant a response. You can do this by clicking “Add owner comment” at the bottom of the review.

After you feel comfortable with the basics of Yelp and you feel like you’ve maximized the benefits of the basic features, you might consider using promotions and advertising to drive traffic and engagement. One option is to offer a Yelp Deal or a Check-In Offer. Yelp Deals appear with your listing on both the desktop and mobile apps when users find your business, and they can provide extra incentive for people to choose your business over a competitor they are considering.

Another great thing about Deals is that one of the filters you can use when searching Yelp is “Offering A Deal”. When users refine their search this way, even businesses who meet all of their criteria get knocked out of the running if they aren’t offering a deal. I personally always search for businesses with a deal first, and if I don’t find one that works for me, I’ll take that filter off. Deals are great for small business owners because there are no upfront costs to run one. Yelp retains 30% of the revenue from sales made with your deal, but if nobody claims it, you don’t pay anything.

A Check-In Offer is different because it’s only offered on the mobile application, and users must actually check in on Yelp at your business in order to claim it or save it. Yelp points out that 45% of Yelp searches happen on mobile devices, which means that nearly half of users are ‘out in the wild’ when they’re searching for businesses. Offering a Check-In deal is a great way to entice and reward them.

Business owners who are very comfortable with Yelp’s functionality and want to really maximize their accounts often look to Yelp Advertising. There are local search, banner ad, and profile enhancement elements available through this service, and prices typically range from $300-$1000 per month depending on the features chosen. A lot can be done on Yelp without ever spending a dime, but if you have it in your marketing budget, it’s certainly worth a try. You can learn all about it on their advertising homepage. A parting though: If your customers are not using Yelp, advertising to them there does not make much sense. Do some tracking (online and in person) to find out how many of your referrals come from Yelp before you invest in the site as an advertising vehicle.

In recent years, Yelp has become just focused on the businesses that sustain its presence as it is on the customers who use it. To that end, they have lots of online resources like a business blog, Yelp webinars, and even a Yelp Small Business Advisory Council that was formed in 2010 to help direct the company’s future development. Check them out and make the most of Yelp for Business.

If for some reason the article above has not convinced you that Yelp is worth your time, consider one last point: Yelp is good for SEO! First, the more sites that link back to your business’s website, the better your search ranking will be. Second, the more search results that pop up on Google that you control, the better. Make sure Yelp is one of them!

Have you found Yelp to be a good resource for your business? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

About the Author: Sarah Matista is the Online Content Specialist and resident blogger at Webs. Loves branding, marketing, whales. Get more from Sarah on Webs’ Blog and Google+.

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