Yelp Finally Gets Personal With a Much-Needed Redesign

The venerable local-reviews app is being overhauled, and everyone will see it differently

Images courtesy of Yelp.

The Internet has changed a lot in the past five years. Yelp hasn’t — until now.

The local-reviews company on Monday launched a new version of its app that will tailor results and recommendations to the tastes of each user. That means two people searching for, say, Mexican food from the same location will now see different results, based on a set of preferences they’ll be given the option to enter when they update the app to the latest version. They’ll also see a different home screen, highlighting businesses that Yelp’s algorithms think will appeal to them based on their preferences and how they’ve used the app in the past.

So if you let Yelp know you’re a vegetarian, you probably won’t see many steakhouses in your search results anymore, even if they get 4.5 stars from local carnivores. If you have young kids, you might see family activities like a children’s museum featured in the app on a Saturday morning instead of, say, boozy brunch spots. If you need gender-neutral bathrooms, Yelp will highlight businesses that offer them over those that don’t.

The changes will come as part of an update to Yelp’s Android and iOS app that began rolling out Monday. They’ll affect only people who log in to the mobile app, not those who visit Yelp on the web.

The update, which OneZero tested prior to the announcement, makes Yelp more useful in a way that feels long overdue. It’s particularly valuable for people whose needs or preferences don’t align with the app’s typical user, who according to ComScore data is a college-educated 35-to-54-year-old with a household income upwards of $100,000.

If you let Yelp know you’re a vegetarian, you probably won’t see many steakhouses in your search results anymore, even if they get 4.5 stars from local carnivores.

It might also make Yelp seem a little creepier, depending on how you feel about large corporations getting to know you better, though the company says it won’t share the data with anyone and isn’t using it to target ads, at least at this point. More subtly, it might shift the landscape for local businesses, because it will no longer be directing all of its users to the same top results for every search.

Screenshots of the new Yelp app show how users are asked to tell it their preferences, then see recommendations tailored to their tastes.

The personalization push is the first of two major changes that Yelp says it’s planning. The second will be a redesign of its app and website to more tightly integrate actions, such as booking a reservation, getting a quote, or ordering online, with the search results, recommendations, and reviews. Yelp said that will happen “in the next year.”

Your Google search results, your Facebook feed, your Instagram feed, your Pinterest feed, and even your Medium story recommendations have all been personalized for years. It’s a little surprising that Yelp hasn’t followed suit before now. The app has customized its recommendations and search results based on your location, the time of day, and other contextual signals, but has never bothered to just come out and ask users what they like.

In my test of the new app, I spent about four minutes selecting my dietary, lifestyle, culinary, and activity preferences, along with my accessibility needs. In a time of heightened online privacy concerns, it felt a little counterintuitive to be actively helping a Silicon Valley tech platform profile me — a sentiment that could pose an obstacle to Yelp’s plans, if it’s widely shared.

On the other hand, I figured Yelp already knows me pretty well based on my long history of searches, not to mention my smartphone’s location history. As long as I’m being profiled for profit, I’d rather that process be out in the open than clandestine. Yelp makes it relatively easy to view and edit your preferences once you’ve entered them, though a “clear all” or “forget history” button would be appreciated. (To be fair, there are more invasive platforms such as Facebook that still haven’t done this either.) It also lets you know when it’s making a recommendation based on a certain preference, which is a good reminder that your results aren’t the same as everyone else’s.

In a time of heightened online privacy concerns, it felt a little counterintuitive to be actively helping a Silicon Valley tech platform profile me.

“We’re trying to be very transparent about it and do it in a human way,” said Akhil Ramesh, Yelp’s head of consumer product. When you’re getting to know someone, “you don’t sit back and try to guess if they’re into bookstores or farmer’s markets, or what they do for fun on the weekends. You ask them.”

After I entered my preferences, the app reconfigured itself in ways that were relatively subtle but generally useful. No longer did my homescreen include a section highlighting “best local bars,” which I haven’t had much time to frequent since becoming a father. Instead, a section called “Picks for you” showed me a selection of local Thai, Indian, and barbecue restaurants, along with a carousel of highly rated places called “Explore weekly” that seems like a direct reference to Spotify’s famous personalized playlists. Some of these were farther afield, geographically, than the app’s typical recommendations, which I appreciated because I already know most of the good restaurants in my smallish college town.

The personalization wasn’t perfect, though. The top of my feed asked, “Bringing the pooch?” and suggested some dog-friendly spots, presumably because I told Yelp I’m a pet owner. One problem: My pet is a cat, and I’m fairly certain that no one would be delighted if I brought it to my local beer garden, except perhaps the other patrons’ dogs.

I was also mildly disappointed to learn that my telling Yelp I’m interested in Chinese restaurants didn’t magically improve the quality of the Chinese restaurants in my area. The app excitedly suggested the same handful of 3-star joints I’ve already tried.

Users expecting a dramatic refresh of the app may also be underwhelmed to see that it looks much the same as before, at least on the surface. We’ll have to wait until the full redesign to see a Yelp that looks like it was built in 2019, rather than 2012.

Tell Yelp you’re a pet owner, and it will now highlight pet-friendly restaurants in its search results and recommendations.

Still, the product updates suggest that Yelp may be moving on from a long period in which its regulatory battles with Google and pressure to increase ad sales seemed to distract the company’s leadership from making meaningful improvements to its own products. Founded in 2004, Yelp went public in 2012 at a valuation of nearly $1 billion on the promise of being the 21st century equivalent of the Yellow Pages. Its stock peaked in 2014 at a market cap of more than $6 billion, but the company has lost half its value since then, partly because Google began putting its own local business results and reviews ahead of Yelp’s. (That’s part of Yelp’s antitrust argument against Google, which was featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes in May 2018). Late last year, an activist shareholder pushed for a board shakeup, citing the company’s “slow pace of innovation.”

More recently, Yelp has made the news for a shady practice that routed users’ phone calls to local businesses through the online ordering platform Grubhub, without telling users it was doing so. Grubhub takes a cut of orders placed through its service, and Yelp got paid by Grubhub as part of a partnership. Yelp responded to criticism by adding a “powered by Grubhub” label to the app, making the feature less blatantly deceptive but keeping the business arrangement intact.

It seems clear that Yelp wants to be part of the booming if crowded food delivery business, which is understandable from a business standpoint: The more people order from apps such as DoorDash, Postmates, and UberEats, the more likely it is that they’ll use those apps to find and read reviews of restaurants, too. That would cut Yelp out of the equation.

Yelp’s core advantage has always been the quality of its reviews, which are far from perfect, but significantly more reliable than those on other local-business sites. The personalization update builds on that in a way that feels more natural than bolting on delivery features and raking in kickbacks.

At the same time, it gives Yelp access to far richer and more reliable data on its users than it had previously. While Ramesh told me it isn’t using that data for targeted ads yet, he didn’t rule out doing so in the future, and it seems inevitable. Retaining and adding users is crucial to Yelp’s future, but so is selling ads, and allowing advertisers to refine their audience based on self-reported preferences could be a major selling point.

Yelp faces an uphill battle to realize the potential it once held as the de facto local business directory of the digital age. But doing a better job at the thing it has always done best seems like the right place to start.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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