In this time of racial tension and political strife, digital platforms are increasingly looking to do their part to make a positive difference in communities harmed by ongoing disparities. Unfortunately, the very measures enacted in hopes of improving outcomes can occasionally have unintended consequences. Such could be the case for Yelp’s new Anti-Racism Policy, which aims to alert consumers to racism in hospitality, retail, and other industries.
Leaders at Yelp view this as an opportunity to take a firm stance against racism — but business owners worry that they’ll suffer unnecessary and unfair harm during a time in which economic uncertainty already creates far too many challenges for small businesses.
Below, we address both the potential benefits and drawbacks of Yelp’s latest anti-racism efforts — and options for continuing to leverage the platform in light of these changes.
Note from the author:
While racism is an extremely contentious and politicized topic in America today, we proudly believe that Black Lives Matter and support their movement for justice. We support advocating for all minority groups and those who have been underserved, marginalized, and treated unfairly.
In no way is this article advocating for racism or arguing against policies that aim to identify, root out, and eliminate racist ideas, actions, business practices, or legislation. This article intends to showcase the potentially positive and negative impacts of Yelp’s new Anti-Racism Policy as well as ask some tough questions about the purpose or efficacy behind it.
Yelp’s Consumer Alert: How Does It Work?
Yelp pages often see a considerable spike in traffic and negative reviews in response to racist behavior allegations. These can sometimes spiral out of control, which may make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Therefore, to lend greater accuracy to the conversation while also condemning racist behavior, Yelp will now flag business pages impacted by significant allegations.
A statement about Yelp’s new policy explains that it was prompted by the “clear need to warn consumers about businesses associated with egregious, racially-charged actions to help people make more informed spending decisions.”
Small businesses today are in partnership with their customers. There is a level of mutual trust, respect, and an expectation that owners and their employees are showing up authentically in their business. Therefore, Yelp’s new anti-racism policy is about more than just where you spend your dollars. It also aims to allow customers to safely advocate for the businesses they wish to support and recommend. Yelp’s new policy should empower buyers, giving them better data to make more informed decisions, especially whether or not a business upholds the societal standards and anti-racist values you would expect.
Yelp’s new initiative involves multiple levels. The default: A Public Attention Alert, which lets users know if a particular business — or somebody associated with it — has been accused of committing racist behavior. The alert can also be triggered if somebody involved with a particular company becomes the target of racism.
If ample evidence indicates that a business has committed especially problematic actions motivated by racism, Yelp will issue a more severe “Business Accused of Racist Behavior” alert. The platform highlights potential examples, such as the use of overtly racist slurs or symbols. A spokesperson tells NPR that incidents requiring such an escalated response are “extremely rare.”
Given the potentially harsh implications of the racist behavior alert, Yelp will always accompany this action with a link to a report from a credible resource. Consumers can visit this story and decide for themselves if they still want to invest in products or services from the business accused of racism.
Vice president of user operations Noorie Malik adds that, when determining whether to issue alerts, Yelp’s team will seek “video or photographic evidence or a link to a racist rant on social media.” Businesses that take corrective action, such as firing problematic employees, may see alerts downgraded. Malik also stated that Yelp has seen the number of businesses involved in alleged racist incidents soar in recent months:
“So far in 2020, we’ve seen a 133 percent increase in the number of media-fueled incidences on Yelp compared to the same time last year. Between May 26 and September 30, we placed more than 450 alerts on business pages that were either accused of, or the target of, racist behavior related to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
How Yelp’s Anti-Racism Policy Might Negatively Impact Businesses
While all customers deserve to feel safe while engaging with businesses, Yelp’s efforts could cause real problems for some organizations. It stands to reason that, if flagged by the platform, companies will see a swift loss in revenue. Whether the action is justified or not, the ensuing reputational damage may prove challenging to overcome.
Negative online reviews, in particular, are incredibly challenging to manage for most small businesses. As experts in online reputation management, we see this firsthand; and some of our clients have experienced an influx of negative reviews that, at times, are not based on fact or actual consumer experiences. Platforms like Yelp also make it far more difficult for business owners to argue for removing a negative review. The tools available for small business owners are few and often do not allow them to state their case or prove that a review is false, misleading, disparaging, or hurtful.
Yelp is one of the few platforms that outright refuses to get in the middle of an argument. Any review flagged as “false” is met with a message stating, “We don’t take sides on factual disputes.”
These concerns are strengthened even further if you look at the fact that 80% of consumers will choose to go elsewhere if they read a bad review, and someone who has a negative experience is 21% more likely to leave a negative review.
It’s increasingly clear that social proof — such as reviews on Yelp — can either boost profits or damage a company’s bottom line. If less-than-desirable feedback from a few customers causes problems, imagine the issues raised by an official Yelp alert.
A policy such as this brings an essential debate to the forefront:
How responsible should business owners be for their employees’ behavior?
While it’s vital to vet hires carefully and implement anti-racism policies and training procedures, even the most conscientious entrepreneur can be fooled by employees who initially seem responsible but ultimately demonstrate racist attitudes or behaviors.
Another concern: the potential for customers to post unflattering reviews without actually visiting the businesses they malign. While such behavior is far from new, some business owners fear that it will lead to unjustified alerts.
Look at the polarization of the current 2020 presidential election. It has created a massive divide in acceptable behavior or what is racist and what is not. For example, someone may consider a large Trump-Pence sign in the window of a local business offensive or racist, while others see it as an exercise in free speech / political speech by others. This deep divide in our culture and values could prompt someone to accuse the business of racist behavior. Even the name of a business, someone flying a particular country’s flag, promoting religion, or advertising to a specific demographic might be offensive to one person but be perfectly acceptable to someone else.
There are also plenty of instances where Yelp’s racist alert would be a useful tool for the platform. For example, in 2018, a Philadelphia area Starbucks employee called police on two Black consumers who were simply waiting for a friend. The event was widely documented across multiple news stories and backed up with photographic and video evidence to recognize the incident as racist behavior.
Thankfully, Yelp has already implemented a system to prevent unwarranted controversy. Before instating its current anti-racism policy, the company made a point of disabling reviews or using alerts when upticks occurred in response to prominent news reports for a particular business.
Yelp’s disabling measures for a listing under investigation protects the business since some reviews may not come from firsthand experience but rather stem from a reaction to controversial headlines or accusations of racist behavior. It is not uncommon for there to be a significant uptick in negative reviews following a highly publicized event, regardless of racism.
As an example, a client of ours parted ways with an underperforming employee who took it upon themselves to post negative reviews on every platform (Yelp, Google, Facebook, and others). They also recruited their friends, who had no affiliation or personal experience with the business, to do the same. We were able to argue for removing these reviews on behalf of our client. Still, their reputation was significantly impacted, as was their sales revenue for over a month while we fought to prove our case and why these reviews were false, inaccurate, and intentionally harmful.
While this approach to flagging a business with a Public Attention Alert on Yelp does not thrill small business owners, it will prevent some negative fallout, such as suddenly receiving an influx of one-star reviews — potentially from people who haven’t even had firsthand experience with the business location in question.
How to Make the Most of Yelp’s New Policy
Like it or not, Yelp’s alerts are here to stay. There is a need for all small and medium-sized businesses to improve their diversity and inclusion practices. As such, it’s prudent to prepare for both the opportunities and challenges brought about by this new policy. How, exactly, this occurs will depend mainly on current anti-racism efforts at the business level.
As you prepare your response to Yelp’s new policy, consider performing an audit of your business practices as they relate to the current racial tension. Do you require employees to undergo sensitivity training? What happens if you’re made aware of an employee’s unacceptable conduct? To what degree should you be monitoring your employee’s behavior or online profiles outside of work?
Consider seeking feedback from an outside party, which can alert you to concerns that require urgent attention. The better you understand your company’s present culture and atmosphere, the more equipped you’ll be to make the necessary changes.
Next, develop standards for employee behavior. All workers should recognize that their conduct, both on and off the job, can impact your business. Make your expectations clear from the get-go and continue to clarify with ongoing training and other updates as needed. Employees should realize that, should they behave in a way that places customers — and by extension, your business — at risk, there will be consequences. Don’t hesitate to follow through if workers step out of line.
Crisis management is also essential. How you respond to allegations could influence whether your Yelp page receives a general or severe alert — or whether any action is taken at all. As mentioned previously, Yelp will sometimes de-escalate alerts in response to corrective action. Even if an alert remains in place, consumers might be willing to give businesses a chance if they witness a thoughtful response or evidence of mitigation efforts.
How a Positive, Yet Authentic Brand Message Can Help
Another key for thriving as policies such as the alert system at Yelp take over: demonstrating your company’s commitment to improving your community. This commitment should be evident in every aspect of your branding, products, and services. Inaction is no longer a statement in you or your business’s stance against racism. Not partaking in a racist activity or sharing racist ideas does not mean you are anti-racist. Consumers expect to know where you stand and in what ways you are combatting systemic racism.
Today’s conscious consumers are far more willing to give businesses the benefit of the doubt when they believe that such organizations otherwise make a positive difference. Strive for authenticity over hollow messaging — and don’t be afraid to apologize or take corrective action if called out due to legitimate concerns. Many businesses took a stand for racial justice, but their attempts fell flat because their actions did not match the message.
For example, Quaker Oats’ brand Aunt Jemima chose to discontinue the brand in an attempt to make amends for past wrongdoings. However, merely withdrawing the brand or repackaging the same product comes across as relatively passive and self-serving. Most consumers did not resonate with the authenticity of this message.
Other companies attempt to attract consumers by supporting a cause that can still come across as looking out for their self-interest. For example, Aerosoles announced they support racial justice and aim to combat discrimination by donating a percentage of their sales proceeds to the NAACP. While this is a proactive measure to support important issues, it will also bring in more revenue as their customers will seek to support the cause with their purchases.
Nike is an excellent example of a company taking a stand with little to no obvious self-interest. After the NFL abandoned Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, Nike chose to build their Just Do It campaign around him.
Should Yelp be Policing Racist Behavior or Calling Out Businesses?
Shouldn’t we all? The short answer is YES!
We support and respect Yelp for trying to protect against and punish racist behavior. Racism alerts will have a material impact on businesses targeted by these alerts. That, of course, is the point.
There may, however, also be instances where businesses are unfairly targeted, such as a rogue employee, the Rashomon effect (where each eye witness describes a different version of the same event), a crazy customer (yes, we’ve all had a few I’m sure) or a bitter competitor who just wants to see you fail. These points bring up some serious questions:
- Should the responsibility of forcing a business to change its policies, how or with whom it does business, or to more carefully vet employees before hiring them fall on platforms like Yelp?
- Should we rely on a website built to be an unbiased business listing directory (like Yelp) to fairly identify and root out racist behavior?
- Will there be instances where Yelp gets it wrong, and a business is negatively impacted or forced to close due to the fallout from their community?
- What safeguards will be in place to ensure Yelp is practicing due diligence before issuing these alerts?
- What policies will Yelp have in place to correct misleading data or labels they apply to a business they mistakenly flag as racist?
- Can businesses pursue legal action again, a platform like Yelp that labels them without factual data or evidence?
Questions such as these aim to deepen the discussion around who should be policing online business information and what should be done if there is proof of racism towards customers or employees. Anela Malik, the founder of Feed the Malik, a website dedicated to featuring Black-owned restaurants, spoke to The Washington Post about Yelp’s new Anti-Racism policy and stated,
“I’m happy they’re trying to do something around issues of racism, particularly in business. But I couldn’t even imagine how I could design a system that would be impartial and actually work.”
Will Yelp’s new anti-racism policy work and target businesses fairly?
That is our primary concern.
Another genuine concern we have is the impact this will have on small businesses specifically because they are already impacted so heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since “Shelter in Place” orders went into effect and states began to limit a consumer’s access to the businesses they frequent, we have seen a significant uptick in negative reviews for businesses. Many of these negative sentiments have stemmed from how those businesses are perceived to be handling COVID-19 protocols. Consumers often expect the same experience even in these chaotic times, which puts undue stress on small businesses just trying their best to follow state or local government guidelines and mandates.
For example, in our state of California, our colored-tier system of Purple, Red, Orange, and Yellow designates, which counties can “open up” and follow less restrictive guidelines. The guidelines continue to create a ton of confusion for customers. Some get upset with a business that is forced to comply or provide service differently to meet those restrictions. Therefore, a situation entirely out of the business owners’ hands can still negatively impact their business if a customer decides to leave a negative review.
Yelp’s new Anti-Racism policy, without proper measures in place, may get abused and weaponized to hurt people and their business just as COVID-19 measures have.
While this article is intended to educate and inform you about Yelp’s new Anti-Racism Policy, we hope that it sparks a healthy conversation that we should be having about how small businesses can promote and practice inclusion and diversity and eliminate racist behavior and racist employees in the workplace.
As you navigate the complications of running a business during these difficult times, it’s more important than ever that you position your brand correctly. Strong brand messaging and an authentic approach to doing business can make new challenges easier to navigate.
At Vinci Digital, we’re committed to providing the guidance and feedback you need. We work with businesses large and small to help improve their online reputation and correct any misleading information that has been said about them. Online reputation management has become extremely complicated. With over 63% of consumers checking online reviews on Google before they visit a business, small business owners can no longer leave their reputation to chance! Contact us today to learn more about our brand development and reputation management services.
- What are you doing to handle new digital marketing complications, such as Yelp’s alert system?
- Will Yelp’s new Anti-Racism Policy be a responsible way to hold businesses accountable, or will it be too susceptible to abuse?
- Have you seen, or do you think other review sites will offer something similar?
Leave a comment below to let us know which strategies you’ve found most helpful for dealing with today’s most significant challenges.