“Communities have always turned to Yelp in reaction to current events at the local level. 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,” Malik wrote.
But some people are concerned that the Yelp label could be misused and incorrectly ostracize businesses who may not deserve it.
“The problem with this is that people may use it to cancel businesses unjustifiably,” one Twitter user wrote in response to the news Friday.
Yelp said it has a system in place to try to prevent that from happening. The company’s user operations team already investigates and disables reviews or puts alerts on business pages if it finds that the business is seeing a huge uptick in reviews in response to news reports, rather than from people who have actually visited. Those are in place to let people know that the business is getting a lot of public attention, and recent reviews might not be from firsthand experience.
The new “Business Accused of Racist Behavior” alert takes that one step further by putting the warning on business pages “when there’s resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee,” Malik said in a statement. In that case, Yelp will link to a news article from a “credible media outlet” that explains the issue.
Yelp has faced allegations in the past that it favors positive reviews for advertisers, which it has denied. In addition, some restaurant owners have already long harbored animosity toward Yelp, where they say a few bad reviews can affect their bottom lines. A 2011 Harvard Business School study found that the difference between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating can translate to a 9 percent bump in revenue.
Yelp has also struggled with the same big issue as many social media companies — finding the right places to draw lines between allowing free expression and keeping its site free of hate.
With the new alert, Malik said the team will consider evidence such as a “video or photographic evidence or a link to a racist rant on social media.” Businesses may be able to de-escalate the alert from “racist behavior” to a “Public Attention Alert” if it takes corrective action, such as firing an offending employee, she said.
A few right-wing pundits, including far-right personality Mike Cernovich, criticized Yelp for the new feature on Twitter.
But others applauded Yelp’s action as a step in the right direction. “If you’re not a racist business, what would lead them to label you one?” one user asked.
In its blog, Yelp said it put more than 450 alerts on pages between May 26 and Sept. 30 when businesses were “either accused of, or the target of, racist behavior” related to the Black Lives Matter protests and movement.