Yelp has started flagging restaurants with the worst health inspection violations, a feature it hopes will motivate businesses to clean up their acts if they want to keep operating.
The review site, which lists about 10,000 Chicago restaurants and bars, rolled out its health alerts feature Wednesday in Chicago and Los Angeles, following a pilot in its hometown of San Francisco.
Users of the site will now see a pop-up message alerting them to a bad health score as they scroll down a restaurant's review page. While Yelp already displays restaurants' health scores on their individual pages -- a number calculated from health inspection data pulled from public local government sources -- the alerts go a step further in drawing attention to violators.
"It's a way to do more to warn consumers and nudge businesses to do better," said Vince Sollitto, senior vice president of communications and public affairs at Yelp.
Only restaurants with the lowest 1% of health scores in the city over the past six months -- about 30 Chicago restaurants -- will be flagged with an alert, which includes details on the date of the inspection and the kinds of violations found. Common violations include not having adequate handwashing sinks and improper date marking, according to Yelp. The scores are updated daily as new inspection results are posted.
In San Francisco, the alerts feature seemed to dissuade people from patronizing offending restaurants, according to a paper from Harvard Business School that examined how different methods of disclosing hygiene information affects consumer behavior. When Yelp added health scores to restaurants' review pages in 2013, those with low scores saw a 13% decrease in "purchase intentions" -- taking steps like looking for directions or calling the restaurant. Once the pop-alerts were added in 2015, affected restaurants saw purchase intentions drop an additional 7%, and the number of reviews for those restaurants declined 11%.
Restaurants flagged with an alert were more likely than their peers to not be flagged again six months later, the study found, suggesting they may have improved their hygiene standards so as not to lose customers. The study also found restaurants with low health scores were more likely to close than their peers, though the relationship wasn't statistically significant.
While restaurants' hygiene information lives on most municipal Web sites, Sollitto said the alerts help make it more accessible and understandable for consumers at the moment they are making dining decisions.
Yelp says it was inspired to introduce health scores in 2013 after learning about a study that found hospitalizations related to foodborne illness fell 13% in Los Angeles after the city required restaurants to post their inspection grades in the window. Foodborne illness sickens about 48 million people in the U.S. annually, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yelp works with some local governments to compile health scores, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But for Chicago and many other cities, it uses third party health information aggregator HDScores, which scrapes local government Web sites for inspection data and calculates a weighted score.
The Chicago Department of Public Health said it is aware of Yelp's health score but declined to comment without knowing more about how it is determined. City health inspectors make unannounced visits to restaurants annually, though those with limited same-day food handling get inspected once every two years and establishments serving only prepackaged foods get inspected only when there is a complaint, according to a department spokeswoman. The most serious violations can result in fines, license suspension or closure.
Yelp rolled its health scores out nationally in 2018 and plans for a broader launch of its pop-up alerts once they have been tested in Chicago and L.A., Sollitto said.
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