Is Yelp’s New Food Delivery Service Cause For Concern?

A screengrab of what Yelp's new online-ordering system looks like.

A screengrab of what Yelp’s new online-ordering system looks like.

Earlier today, Yelp announced that it is rolling out online ordering functionality for a handful of restaurants, obviously with the intention of making it available to more businesses on the crowd-sourced review site. But now that Yelp has a vested interest in the success of some of the businesses that users review, it makes us wonder if the site is ultimately doing damage to its own reputation as a source for honest reviews.

There are currently only a very small number of businesses involved in the launch of the service, but as more restaurants sign on — and as Yelp expands the program, dubbed Yelp Platform, to include online reservations at salons, spas, dentists, etc — one has to wonder if a conflict of interest will arise.

The post on Yelp’s blog about today’s announcement doesn’t mention any specifics of how Yelp benefits financially from the online ordering service, but a rep for the website tells Consumerist, “We share in the revenue that the restaurant pays to the ordering service for providing online ordering technology and offline distribution services, but the vast majority paid by consumers for food still goes to the restaurant.”

Right now, Yelp doesn’t really have any financial stake in the well-being of the businesses listed on the site. If a restaurant or nail salon is shuttered, it doesn’t really impact the company’s bottom line.

By charging fees for online orders and reservations, Yelp is put in a position in which it has a financial interest in seeing that participating restaurants are portrayed positively. Higher star ratings and more comments from happy customers could result in more orders being placed, which would in turn mean more money for Yelp. But does the fact that Yelp could make more by manipulating ratings mean that the site will secretly tweak ratings?

Yelp has long had to weather complaints from businesses who claim the site’s review-filtering system can hide scores of valid comments and result in an unfairly skewed public profile. Some businesses have alleged that Yelp provides preferential treatment to advertisers, but Yelp has repeatedly denied these claims.

You can be sure that some of these critics will be on the lookout for even the slightest hint that participating Yelp Platform businesses are being given an unfair boost, whether it’s by manipulation of star ratings and comments, or by improved placement in search results.

For its part, Yelp says the new services will not affect the ratings.

“Consumers are free to decide where they choose to spend their money, we are simply providing them with a streamlined way to transact with that business,” the Yelp rep tells Consumerist. “There has never been any amount of money that a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews, rating or placement in organic search and Yelp Platform is no exception.”

Yelp’s online-ordering system is obviously a direct challenge to existing services like GrubHub, which currently posts Yelp star-ratings side-by-side with its own users’ ratings. In light of today’s announcement, we asked GrubHub if it will continue to use Yelp ratings. A rep for the service tells Consumerist, that “We have no plans to change that feature.”