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Since the advent of social media, users across the planet have become addicted to sharing information online, whether it is news, media, or opinion. There’s something subtly attractive about having the freedom to express one’s opinion in a place where countless others can see. But if you think social media is all about personal gossip and status updates, think again. In recent years, social media has become one of the top resources for users looking for information about businesses, products, and services. More often than not, opinions shared via social media will make or break a customer’s decision to do business in a certain location.

This is why it is crucial to grow your practice by taking advantage of online city or business guides which are driven by user-inputted data. In an earlier blog post, we discussed the benefits of utilizing Google Places to drive inbound marketing, but there are similar sites, such as Citysearch and Angie’s List, which can have just as much of an impact on your practice as Google Places. The site that is steadily becoming the most popular is Yelp. Founded in 2004, it is relatively new compared to its competitors. Only in the past few years has it started to become a prominent name in social media. If this is your first time hearing about it, you probably aren’t alone.

Yelp boasts of a monthly hit count of over 41 million, and its review count has increased exponentially since 2008. Currently, it has more than 15 million reviews – more than Citysearch or Angie’s List. It has become widely popular on wireless and mobile devices, such as iPhones and Droids, because it is also available as an “app.” This makes it faster and more convenient to access than having to go though the mobile browser, and it becomes handy in crunch situations when a customer or patient needs a last minute review on a restaurant, retail store, or healthcare provider.

Nearly half of all reviews on Yelp are aimed specifically at those seeking popular dining establishments or shopping venues. Reviews of healthcare practices stand at a small 5% of its total user input. This may seem daunting, but for the relatively small amount of healthcare practices found on Yelp, this is good news. They are getting more exposure without competition from their peers. Practices which rely heavily on out of pocket expenses from their patients – such as plastic and LASIK surgeons or aestheticians – will find Yelp extremely useful, since a large majority of Yelp users are between the ages of 18-50 and make more than $60,000 in annual income.

You may be hesitant to put your practice onto a user-driven site like Yelp for fear of what your patients might have to say about you. Reputation is everything, and social makes it much harder to avoid negative feedback when users can post reviews so easily and anonymously. But do not let that hold you back. Come back next week, when we will talk about ways you can be proactive about your online reputation.