Whether it be by word of mouth, or with a yelp, information spreads rapidly.
Yelp, a website dedicated to customer reviews of restaurants and other attractions recently began implementing a new feature for restaurant reviews. In a small area of San Francisco, Yelp began placing a warning label on the review site of each restaurant appearing in the bottom five per cent of health inspection rankings in the local area. Yelp claims that they are attempting to make the restaurant industry more transparent by taking this readily available information and making it more accessible. There is also the hope that these restaurants within this bottom five per cent will respond to these labels by quickly changing their practices, resulting in a cleaner and safer experience for patrons.
The problem that arises stems from the reporting of a passing grade. Any restaurant currently operating has experienced a health inspection and has not been deemed so bad so as to cease operating. This label that could be widely shown by Yelp could potentially cripple businesses despite the regional health services giving it a pass. The checklist for food inspection in Alberta has many things you’d expect and hope from them. Restaurants must have proper sanitation practices and must have functional sinks for washing hands. Also on the list are things that diners wouldn’t likely consider: light bulbs must be shatterproof or in a shatterproof case and floor-wall joints must have proper finishing. These second set of instances seem less of a necessity then the first set, but any of which can cause the inspectors to raise concerns and affect the health rating of a restaurant.
In the past, businesses have accused Yelp of attempting to extort restaurants into paying for ad space with the threat of bad reviews or less viewership, some viewing Yelp as having a tarnished reputation. If Yelp can be manipulated with fake good reviews, or be punished with bad ones, it raises questions about whether this new warning label could or would be manipulated. If Yelp is an honest business, the label will stay until the food inspectors say otherwise. But if Yelp does use shady business practices, warning labels become another way to potentially extort businesses, such as potentially threatening a business with branding them as unclean unless they pay up.
These labels may seem to be a helpful guideline and nothing more. According to Quantcast, Yelp has the seventh most traffic of all websites within the United States and the fifty-first in Canada. With 1.2 million unique Canadian users in October, Yelp is widely used and talked about. Just as a friend will recommend restaurants based on their previous experiences, so too will they recommend something based on what they have read. With one person seeing the label, they tell their friends, who pass it along. Eventually a certain restaurant gets a reputation as unclean, despite never failing to pass inspection. Local businesses across North America are at risk of losing their customer base due to a label that simply says they meet health and safety standards.