Yelp quietly rolled out a new feature in San Francisco on October 20 that’s already proving controversial. Now, when looking at a restaurant (like this one) that has a food safety rating that is in the bottom five percent locally and is categorized by health inspectors as "poor," a pop-up message on the page alerts users to this.
"Our goal is to protect consumers by putting relevant information in front of them when they're making a spending decision," Yelp’s senior PR manager Rachel Walker told Eater. "A study in LA found that better exposure to restaurant hygiene scores led to a decrease in hospitalizations due to foodborne illness and an increase in best practices across the local industry."
The Washington Post points out that it’s a curious move for a company in the business of "selling online ads against reviews generated by its users. It won't make any money by preventing food poisoning or even partnering with city regulators to detect it." Yet Yelp’s head of public policy Luther Lowe insists it’s on brand. "Yelp’s job is to predict in an online way the experience consumers can expect will happen in the offline world," he told the Post. "To the extent that we can augment the consumer opinions and ratings that our users rely on with government data that they’re creating with their tax dollars — that’s a great win-win."
A win-win for Yelp and consumers, maybe, but potentially not so for the restaurants this new pop-up affects, argues Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. "Health inspections are a very complicated issue because the scoring process isn't necessarily things as a general consumer you'd find to be a safety hazard, like the location of a particular sink," Borden told Eater. "Restaurants with true health risks are shut down by the health department and cannot continue to operate. Reinspections happen all the time, and it’s not clear whether or not in the new functionality if the score will be updated instantly. Is their algorithm going to recalculate if the restaurant gets reinspected and changes?"
Borden also points out that users don’t have to have eaten in a restaurant to review it. "So seeing a red flag related to your health score kind of fans the flames of people ranting about things unrelated," she said. "We see this over and over again when a restaurant has a public relations problem of any sort whether it’s a television thing or controversy with family members."
Lowe hopes the program helps restaurants clean up rather than harm any business. "The mark of success in this for me would be if businesses stop getting poor scores," he said. The feature is only being rolled out in San Francisco for the next six months as a predictor of its success.