When Yelp is good enough can anything else beat it?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 9, 2013

From The News Desk

Yelp is like that relationship you've stayed in for three years simply because you're too lazy to get out of it. Yeah, Yelp isn't your dream mate. Sure, it's got a lot of flaws that get on your nerves and make you wonder what the hell you're doing still using it. Perhaps you're perfectly aware that there's some better restaurant review option out there. But at the end of the day inertia wins out.

On Friday, a new app called Wisely launched on iOS in an effort to take on Yelp and win your heart. Here's the pitch. Users link their credit cards to the app, which collects data on when and where they're spending money. That data is anonymized and aggregated among all users, providing an objective map of the most popular bars, restaurants, and cafes around. The idea is that its "democratizing" financial data, a claim made before by companies like failed Blippy.

Wisely has its own value add, but I'm just not quite sure it will win against the entrenched Goliath in the space.

Although it wasn't first to restaurant user reviews, Yelp conquered almost all who came after. Its network effects were just too high. There were enough people on it, reviewing a wide enough swath of restaurants in far flung corners of the nation, that any other application struggled to compete. The only user review platforms that have come close to challenging it on a large scale are tied to service professions, like Angie's List, or have reviews as an after thought, like Foursquare or Google Maps (reviews powered by Google Places).

Yes, news frequently breaks that some Yelp reviews are forged. Sure, there have been rumors about companies advertising with Yelp in exchange for the removal of negative reviews. Of course, the sheer subjectivity of the platform meant that after skimming hundreds of review for different restaurants in the area they all seemed to blend together, with near equal shares of "I love this place!!!!" posts beneath "The waiters are all dicks and the food is crap."

Unfortunately for Wisely, Yelp is good enough. Ish.

Wisely's objective data about restaurants' popularity may be a welcome change from the bipolar pages of Yelp reviews. But to collect such objective data, Wisely will need to bring a large swath of the population on board with the app, a task easier said than done.

Its co-founder Mike Vichich has a grand vision for the product that extends far beyond just competing against Yelp. "The notion of democratizing data, that's what I want my life to be about," Vichich says. "Finance underpins everything." He imagines the Wisely platform eventually mapping costs and spending in sectors as wide ranging as healthcare and education. "If we could apply it to hospitals we could find out how much an MRI costs here or there. There's so many things you can do with it," Vichich says.

It's noble in theory. But to get there Wisely needs to get many many users excited about the product such that they'll link up their credit cards with the app. And Yelp users are not an easily swayed bunch.

It doesn't help that the end of the day, a more objective Yelp is not that exciting of a pitch. In-N-Out might be the most popular burger joint in town according to users' repeat visits, but that doesn't mean I'd prefer it over an Umami or a Slater's. People have different preferences and tastes, so as imperfect as the Yelp reviews might be, they're still more likely to point me in the right dining direction than customer spending data.

Plus Wisely will need to get more credit cards onboard -- at the moment the app can only track the spending of AmEx users. As a result, when I check out the app a bar like The Wreck Room has 0 percent repeating customers. It's not that The Wreck Room doesn't get people coming back a second time -- it's just that there's probably only a few people who have AmEx, linked it to Wisely, and used it at The Wreck Room.

Although it will be an uphill battle acquiring customers for the company, Wisely is off to a promising start. Apple chose to feature it in the iOS app store when it launched on Friday. Perhaps there are enough people out there excited about financial data to get this Yelp competitor going.