Yelp in the Time of Covid

Changes to the platform reflect how we're living now, but what about the future?

A new logo! Some new fonts! Substack is limited in its customization ability, but I’m going to do my best with what it offers. Bear with me as I hone the new look. -KH

Yelp, man. The seemingly innocuous practice of asking people to leave feedback on their experiences at local businesses has taken new shape over the scope of the company’s existence, but there’s perhaps no bigger change than the one that has come over the last year. During Covid, the reviews and ratings site took on new importance, working to adjust its listings and policies to remain relevant in fundamentally different business conditions. It adjusted rules and policed reviews for compliance — and as of November 30 had removed over 4,000 reviews for violating Covid review content guidelines. Now it’s adding a new option: crowdsourced safety compliance. 

On Tuesday, Yelp said it would now display customer feedback on health and safety practices of local businesses, noting if customers did or did not observe the enforcement of social distancing measures and mask-wearing among staff members. It’s the latest pandemic-era update to the review site’s pages, walking a potentially gray line between what guests observe and what’s actually happening.

“Similar to how users can provide Yelp with feedback on whether a business is kid-friendly or great for groups, we’re now reflecting our users’ observations about businesses' safety practices during the pandemic,” reads Yelp’s blog post on the topic. Mask wearing and social distancing were chosen specifically, according to the post, because those are the safety precautions guests can easily see. 

In October, I wrote a piece for Business Insider (paywalled) that explained how restaurant businesses were, in some cases, caught between Yelp reviews and safety guidelines, with some restaurateurs reporting that enforcing the rules sometimes elicited negative online reviews from guests — even though they aren’t allowed.

In fact, Yelp has made vast improvements in weeding out fictional or inaccurate reviews and has also increased transparency around its policies. For example, in order for new reviews of a restaurant’s safety practices to be displayed, reviews from multiple logged-in Yelp users must concur. That is, a bunch of anonymous reviews alleging unmasked servers won’t fly. Yelp will only show the most recent 28 days’ worth of reviews, meaning a potential social distancing failure won’t follow a business around on the internet for years. 

Still, the company doesn’t exactly have the best track record around releasing new functionality. There was the Grubhub phone number debacle in 2019 where Yelp listed phone numbers connected to Grubhub, triggering marketing fees for some restaurants. Last April, Yelp created GoFundMe pages on behalf of restaurants and without their knowledge to solicit donations during Covid. Weeks after it was introduced, Yelp changed the program to opt-in only. 

Yelp’s product decisions seem to reflect the ways that people — consumers — are using Yelp, and that’s for good reason: According to the company, consumer interest increased 41 percent for businesses that added Covid-related updates to their Yelp pages. Yelp makes its money from businesses who pay to reach consumers, and heightened interest translates to real dollars. (I can’t be the only one fielding marketing emails from Yelp directing me to businesses that have recently updated their health and safety info!)

During Covid, Yelp has added several options to let restaurants and other businesses tweak their listings to note new or adjusted business practices — heated outdoor, indoor, or private dining, DIY meal kits, contactless menus, and more. It’s a testament to how we’re interacting with restaurants now, and likely how we’ll continue to interact with them even as vaccines are rolled out across the country. Willing to dine outside only? There’s a filter for that. 

I live in mask-compliant (and locked down) San Francisco, where it’s unusual to see a restaurant (or any business) not complying with masking and distancing regulations. Here, this new functionality will likely serve as a gut check as people choose where to dine (if we’re ever allowed to dine out again, that is.) The stakes may be higher in other parts of the country — in my coverage for Business Insider I found at least one instance of a business being celebrated online for eschewing safety regulations, I’m sure there are more. 

Still, it’s interesting to look at the ways tech supports the restaurant industry now, thinking through how it might evolve in the future. Yelp offers this functionality to businesses for free, and has, due to the pandemic, waived fees and offered other premium services at no charge. That’s in contrast to pre-pandemic times, when a business might have to pay extra to access customization features. Giving a business more control over the way it’s perceived online is a positive change and a practice that would do well to be carried into a post-Covid era. 

What else is happening? 

DoorDash looks to expand in Japan. The company has added a job posting in search of a general manager in the country. It’ll face several competitors in the Japanese market, including Uber Eats, but according to Nikkei, who broke the news, just 5 percent of restaurants in Japan have their own delivery fleets. It’s also considered a potential buyer for Yogiyo, the number-two delivery company in Korea. 

A reminder: ghost kitchens aren’t ubiquitous. A recent TikTok posting from a DoorDash driver lamented the ghost kitchen concept. In the video, the driver unmasks several ghost concepts to viewers, many of whom responded with shock, or even sadness. “How is this deception allowed?” one asked. Therein lies the problem: restaurants have largely been forthright about these concepts — It’s Just Wings operates from Chili’s; MrBeast Burger operates from… anywhere with an appropriate kitchen. But diners often don’t know that because they often haven’t looked beyond the listing in the app. It’s a good reminder that, as always, transparency matters — but also that customers with strong opinions about where there food comes from might want to look a bit deeper to figure out… where their food actually comes from. 

Hospitality workers are being “adopted” through Facebook. In the absence of any kind of targeted and cohesive policy to help restaurant workers in the U.S., diners are turning to Facebook groups to directly support workers. According to CNN, a search for “adopt a server” groups yielded over 40 results across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and California, among other states. 

Restaurants are in the news for accepting money from “controversial” sources. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the historic Tadich Grill, the city’s oldest restaurant, will receive up to $31,000 per month, funded by the Barstool Fund, “a $19 million pool founded by the controversial sports website Barstool Sports.” (The company’s founder has made racist and misogynistic remarks and has been accused of sexual harassment.) In May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated $100,000 to eight of their favorite Bay Area restaurants, including two in my own neighborhood. (You can imagine the Nextdoor comments.) But could accepting this badly needed relief from potentially controversial sources attach itself to a restaurant’s legacy? And could it hurt in the future? 

Facebook redesigned its business pages with less emphasis on “Likes.” A “like” as success metric is on the way out for Facebook, which recently introduced a new look for business pages. According to TechCrunch, a page will now be measured by its followers, “as it’s a better indication of how many people are fans who are receiving updates from the page.” 

Get your Girl Scout Cookies on Grubhub. Really

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