Yelp will let users personalize their homepage and search results

Yelp announced this morning that it will start allowing users to tailor their search results and homepage based on their personal preferences.

In other words, if you’re a vegetarian, or if you’re a parent who’s usually looking for kid-friendly restaurants, you won’t have to reenter that information every time you do a search. Instead, you can enter it once and Yelp will prioritize those results moving forward.

“In the history of Yelp, this is the first time two people searching for the same thing from the same context are going to see different, personalized results,” said head of Consumer Product, Akhil Ramesh.

To do this, users select the “Personalize your experience” option, then choose options around dietary restrictions (whether they’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and so on), their lifestyle (whether they’re parents, car owners or pet owners), their accessibility needs (wheelchair access, gender-neutral bathrooms), the types of food they prefer and other interests (like bookstores or date nights).

Once you’ve made your selections, those preferences will start affecting the search results you see. The personalization should be obvious because the results will be identified as having “many vegetarian options” or “because you like Chinese food.” The homepage will also start highlighting locations that it thinks you would like.

In some ways, this feels like a long overdue move, particularly when so many other popular apps and websites are already heavily personalized. Shy is Yelp finally adopting this approach now?

For one thing, Ramesh pointed to a growing interest in different diets. For another, he said, “We have years and years of unstructured, expressive, quality content, and this content is representative of a real experience with a business. Over the last few years our machine learning and AI capabilities have grown immensely, and what that’s allowed us to do is build really useful features on top of the high quality content that we have.”

Ramesh emphasized that Yelp will focus on using your explicitly shared preferences to shape your results, as opposed to feeding all your behavior into an algorithm. After all, he said, “any machine learning algorithm is going to have tons of biases.”

He described this approach as “the human way”: If you were having a conversation with a person, “You wouldn’t try to assume what the person did over the weekend. You would just ask the person and have an open conversation.”

At the same time, he said there are times when using your general behavior in the app to influence the results could be helpful, so Ramesh said, “We’re trying to figure out how to balance those aspects.”

He also noted that your preferences could change depending on timing and context: You might abandon a certain diet, or you might go out for a meal without your kids. So you can adjust your preferences at any time — or conversely, dive more deeply into one of them by selecting a list from the homepage.

Asked how this affects Yelp’s ad business, Ramesh said it won’t influence the ads you see initially, but the ads will come with similar “Because you liked X” messages tied to your preferences..

“I wouldn’t be surprised if which advertiser we show will be you based on your preferences [eventually], but there’s no ETA on that,” he added.