For better or worse, Yelp often finds itself at the center of attention. Perhaps it is part of its DNA. So we read with interest about the company’s new “firm stance against racism,” and its intention to warn consumers when a business has been credibly reported for racist behavior. The company says it will only add an alert to a business page, “when there’s resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee.”
This is a very bold move. And we do have some questions about how the company will enforce this new standard. For example, what does “egregious racist” actions really mean? Certainly, if a court ruling identifies a racist act, Yelp would be on firm ground. Absent that, will the company rely on its large audience to be the judges here?
There are literally millions of stories — both true and apocryphal — of competitors that disparage rivals in reviews. Or of owners that pay their employees to write glowing reviews. You know, all the tricks to game the system that Yelp is forever combatting. Now, the market has another potential avenue to damage the reputation of a local business owner. Yelp says its policy will rely on situations where the behavior deemed racist is based on “using overtly racist slurs or symbols”. Presumably, this could mean a swastika or a noose. Would this also include a Confederate flag or a picture of Robert E. Lee?
Navigating Challenging Times
Here’s what Yelp said in the press release. “As the nation reckons with issues of systemic racism, we’ve seen in the last few months that there is a clear need to warn consumers about businesses associated with egregious, racially-charged actions to help people make more informed spending decisions.” These are challenging times, for sure. And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock over the last six months, you know social tensions abound. Yelp does say it will consider an alert if there’s a news article from a “credible media outlet”. Again, it’s unclear what’s considered “credible” in this environment.
Here’s what the company has posted as the notification, including the terminology.
Various articles since Yelp’s announcement have outlined some of the data that the company cites in guiding its new position. According to the company, in 2019, they removed at least 3,000 reviews that were either politically motivated or influenced by celebrities. And this year they’ve seen a 133% increase in “media-fueled” incidents versus a year ago.
According to the press release last week, here’s the bottom line for Yelp. “Increasingly, consumers across the U.S. are voting with their dollars by supporting businesses that align with their values … as always, we continue to evaluate how we can best use our platform to build a better, more equitable and inclusive environment.” Virtuous and important work indeed. But we wonder if they’ve not put themselves into the unenviable position of trying to arbitrate the social tensions that lurk both above and below the surface of our society.
What’s Behind Yelp’s Plan?
So we ask ourselves, is there a secondary objective for Yelp here?
We have a couple of thoughts. One is that, by doing this, the company is genuinely trying to solve some really big problems in our society. To this, we say, good for them. The company may also need some additional attention because its traffic is under pressure due to the pandemic. Or the fact that restaurants, its largest business segment, are in such deep trouble that they need a new angle. We also wonder if this new policy is in some way tied to a broader strategic objective of being acquired by Apple.
We’re interested in hearing your reviews of Yelp’s latest move.