Ratings and reviews in the age of coronavirus


Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology. I'm working to send updates as frequently as the news dictates during this time.

Reviews in the Age of Coronavirus

In just a few weeks, the way that consumers interact with restaurants has been upended. Digital connectivity has become important as we follow stories from our favorite locations, buy gift cards, and place orders for takeout and delivery.

Reminder: a phone call to a restaurant is still a *great* option for placing a takeout order; it’ll help keep workers employed and ensure your business with the restaurants, no third-party delivery companies required.

Life during a pandemic has also caused lots of us to shift our priorities and reexamine the way we lived pre-coronavirus. (“I can’t believe I used to buy pens on Amazon,” one of my girlfriends confessed during a recent Zoom happy hour.) Indeed, things that felt so important three weeks ago have turned to afterthoughts buried in reframed to-do lists.

As the restaurant industry navigates a way forward in the most challenging business conditions of its time, companies that have built businesses on top of — or at least adjacent to — restaurant businesses are also pivoting to adjust. Industry leaders have predicted that between 30 and 75 percent of independent restaurants won’t make it through this crisis to the other side. What of the tech companies?

Last week, “inspired” by industrious restaurants working tirelessly to support their staff, Yelp introduced a partnership with GoFundMe. Links to online fundraisers would “automatically” appear on pages for businesses in certain categories (like restaurants) with fewer than five locations. The company said it would launch pages in hardest-hit areas first, rolling it out to all businesses in a matter of days. These fundraisers had nothing to do with the more official fundraisers started by businesses on behalf of their staff. When I asked a Yelp representative about the initiative, they said “These will be new GoFundMe pages created for businesses through the initiative. If a business already has a GoFundMe page set up, they may keep that one running and choose whether they'd also like the additional GoFundMe fundraiser on their Yelp page.”

The problem, well, one of the problems, is that a whole lot of restaurants didn’t want these fundraisers to appear, and, according to reports, they were challenging to opt out of, requiring scanned copies of photo ID and tax ID numbers. (Ah, yes, let’s give struggling business owners one more thing to add to their to-do lists.) Shortly after the initial rollout, Yelp paused the program and changed its strategy; now owners can opt into hosting the Yelp-created fundraises on their pages.

Yelp the company has struggled recently, and not just because of the virus. Over the last year, it has modified its advertising strategy, including shorter terms for local ads and reducing its sales force. Business owners have long complained about questionable tactics and upsells that require a business to pay to increase its visibility or representation on Yelp.

Yelp has a usefulness problem right now. Most of its features — like reservations and waitlist products for restaurants — can’t be used. Yelp leadership has spoken about these services as a vector to encourage consumer app downloads. Like so many others in the space, Yelp withdrew its 2020 investor guidance due to COVID-19. It is offering $25 million in relief, largely in the form of free marketing and advertising to affected businesses, and is pausing restaurant fees for its waitlst and reservations products — certainly the right thing to do.

Offering its formerly premium services for free take the business back to its roots: user-submitted ratings and reviews. While the company did update guidelines banning claims in reviews of contracting COVID-19 from a business or its employees, or negative reviews about a business’s closure, it hasn’t paused reviews on the platform. San Francisco restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit recently expressed what I suspect a lot of business owners are feeling: “If we get a Yelp review about our take-away service I’m gonna lose it.”

Yelp continues to release economic reports detailing consumer interest in certain categories, though at this point it doesn’t take a data scientist to tell us that interest in dine-in restaurants has fallen off a cliff. Additionally, search traffic on Yelp has reportedly been dropping for some time. Last fall, reports surfaced that the company may have been eyeing an acquisition by Groupon. (The case was strong, but the rumors didn’t pan out.)

Last week Google confirmed temporary changes to local business functionality including reviews and responses. According to its support pages, Google is prioritizing health-related businesses and services; “New reviews, new review replies, new short names, all videos, and all Q&A are unavailable during this time.”

Which begs the question: What’s the role of user-submitted restaurant ratings and reviews now and in the future? Most editorial reviews have been paused, from The New York Times to The Infatuation. James Beard Awards have postponed finalist announcements; World’s 50 Best has said it will still release a list of restaurants, but it will be unranked. How long will it be until it feels right to introduce criticism into an industry that’s, by many accounts, struggling to survive? And what does that mean for a business that’s based its livelihood on the subjective ratings of the public?

That’s all for today, more later this week. Continued solidarity to my fellow WFH parents; may Elsa and Anna continue to carry you through the unknown.

Take care,

Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading.

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