Yelp wants to know if you’re a car owner who prefers jazz bars and Korean food or a vegan parent who loves going to the beach. No, Yelp isn’t expanding into online dating. It just wants to match you to restaurants (and other businesses) better. The company announced Tuesday it will begin providing users with customized recommendations and search results, based entirely on their stated preferences.
“For the first time ever in the history of Yelp, two people with the same context searching for the same thing are going to see completely different results,” Akhil Ramesh, Yelp’s head of consumer product, said in an interview. For example, a search for “brunch” might turn up one set of restaurants for someone who indicates they’re a vegan and another set for someone who keeps halal.
Here’s how the new, personalized Yelp will work. You’ll need to be signed into a Yelp account on the app. In effect, the app will profile your likes and dislikes, to target its recommendations that much more accurately. But rather than infer this information from your online behavior or social connections, Yelp will ask users about their preferences directly. After users receive the update, they’ll have the opportunity to select things like dietary restrictions, such as “Keto” and “Gluten free”; cuisines such as “Thai”; and specific foods, like “Cupcakes.” You can also indicate your hobbies, like “Bowling” and “Art galleries.” And then there’s the lifestyle section, where you can tell Yelp that you have pets, children, or own a car or home. Once you start selecting options, Yelp will begin customizing the app based upon them.
Yelp has long given users the ability to filter search results based on dozens of different criteria, including what type of cuisine a restaurant offers and whether it has vegan or vegetarian options. In a way, the new Yelp is just taking some of those more personal options and setting them to be the default for all searches. You’ll still be able to filter for things like “Full Bar” and “Outdoor Seating” if you want, but those options are not emphasized the same way as a user being a vegetarian, liking Vietnamese food, or needing wheelchair access.
Yelp doesn’t give all of your preferences the same weight. It places more emphasis on dietary restrictions than other lifestyle factors. Which makes sense. If you keep Kosher, that might affect your restaurant choices more often than having a dog. But if you are looking for a pet-friendly restaurant, there’s a shortcut you can tap to automatically search for options. Yelp also creates similar shortcuts for every type of cuisine preference you indicate, making it easy to search when you’re in the mood for a specific type of food. You can also turn off Yelp’s personalization features altogether—say, if you’re searching with a group of people who have different tastes—and filter instead by factors like distance or highest ratings.
The new features become available for roughly half of iOS users today, and the rest will be onboarded later this fall. Android users will only have access to personalized search results for now, with the rest of the features, such as the customized home page, coming within a year, according to Yelp.
Testing It Out
I was given the chance to test Yelp’s new personalization features early. I described myself as a pet owner who likes to eat American, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese food. (I like a lot of cuisines, OK?) I also said I liked art galleries, beaches, bookstores, and breweries.
My Yelp home screen soon began highlighting nearby Chinese restaurants, but the older, more generic recommendations from before also weren’t far away. If I scrolled down, things like “Hot & new coffee spots” still showed up. The changes were most apparent in search results, which are now automatically personalized. When I looked up restaurants near WIRED’s New York office, the second and third options were both American establishments, a reflection of my preferences. But Yelp is still leaning on other signals, like positive reviews, to dictate what I see: the top result was an extremely well-regarded French wine bar, even though I didn’t indicate a desire to eat French food. That’s probably a wise decision on Yelp’s part. Even if you love sushi, you’d probably prefer excellent French food over a mediocre California roll.
I set up a separate Yelp account without any preferences to see what non-personalized results looked like, and found the differences to be mild. The top two restaurant results remained the same, but the third American restaurant was replaced by another French one. Even when I tried changing my preferences to falsely say I was vegan, the French wine bar still remained on top. I also continued to see many of the same sponsored restaurants, no matter how I adjusted my tastes. A Yelp spokesperson says that for now, the personalization features won’t alter how businesses advertise on the platform.
But all this new data Yelp users are now able to hand over to the company could be useful for marketing purposes—and Yelp makes most of its money from its advertising business. Some restaurants already cater to what online platforms like GrubHub say people want to eat. It could be lucrative for a restaurant owner to know lots of self-described vegetarians lived nearby, for example. Or to target ads for your veterinary clinic specifically to pet-owning Yelp users. (Some business owners have accused Yelp of forcing them to advertise on its platform or risk dealing with the impact of negative reviews—a charge the company has denied vigorously for years.)
The new features could be useful to Yelp’s business in another way, by helping differentiate Yelp from one of its most bitter rivals: Google. When you’re on your smartphone looking for a good place to eat nearby, you have a few options to find one—Yelp is one. Google Maps is another. Previously by default, both apps’ home screens suggested nearby landmarks, businesses, and restaurants. Each company guesses what users might enjoy based upon what other people have liked in the past. That similarity isn’t exactly great for Yelp, since unlike Google, it can’t also tell you the best route to get there. Offering more personalized recommendations is one way Yelp can distinguish itself. And as Google continues to be criticized for its privacy practices, it might be less likely to start asking users about their dietary restrictions and whether they prefer gender neutral bathrooms (though it might not need to ask, since it already tracks nearly everything you do).
If you’re not an especially picky eater or don’t have major dietary restrictions, Yelp’s personalized revamp might not drastically change how you use the app. The new features do, though, make it slightly easier to find a restaurant you might enjoy. That might sound minor, but when you’re frantically scrolling on a rainy street corner, quickly discovering a new spot can make all the difference.