by Paul Alan Levy
An article in the Washington City Paper discusses a new feature on Yelp’s web site, which captures health department inspection records and boils them down to a score (in most jurisdictions, the scale runs from zero and 100). Some restaurateurs who are unhappy about having received low health scores sounded off to the reporter about the alleged unfairness of the ratings; the local restaurant association is quoted as warning that Yelp is going to harm its "goodwill within the restaurant community."
The article suggests that the health-score data on the Yelp may be significantly out of date, in that the scores from some of the restaurants are apparently based on health department inspections that are themselves significantly out of date. The DC Department of Health admitted to City Paper reporter Laura Hayes that the last inspection of one restaurant, Simply Banh Mi, had been in December, 2016 even though the Health Department claims that most restaurants are supposed to be inspected at least twice a year. Another place, Il Canale, apparently went from December 2016 to June 2018 between inspections.
The article indicates that from July 25 to July 31, the Health Scores page for Simply Banh Mi had jumped six points from the 59 points that appeared earlier in the reporter's work on the article. Similarly, when I visited the Il Canale health scores page on August 6, five days after the article’s August 1 publication date, its score had gone from 66 to 72. HD Scores, the company whose data Yelp uses to populate this new feature, did not respond to my inquiry about whether it had deliberately increased the scores in response to criticism.
I can’t help feeling that the general manager of one Washington, D.C. restaurant has rather shot himself in the foot by his outraged reaction to the health score feature, quoted in the article's lede: “‘You know what I think?’ Matteo Russoniello says. ‘Yelp sucks anyway. Who really cares. Just losers go there.’” I approached Russoniello about the quote, and he claimed that it reflects his true feelings, although he seemed worried about the impact that his candor could have on his facility, and offered to formulate a euphemism for me to quote.
And, in fact, I suspect Russoniello values the business his place can get from Yelp users. First of all, the Yelp page about Il Canale reflects that the business has placed a self-description on the page, something that it can only do if it registers with Yelp for a business owner's account. Review of Il Canale's pages on the Internet Archive indicate that the business registered for such any account several years ago (that is, not in response to the article), and indeed that the restaurant has advertised on Yelp in the past. Apparently the restaurant sees value in communication with potential customers who learn about it on Yelp. Moreover, most of the customer reviews of his restaurant are highly favorable – does Russoniello really think that all of his five-star reviews come from “losers”?
Too late for publication in my original post, I received from HD Scores the following possible explanation for the changes in scores for these two restaurants, quoted (with grammatical fixes):
that "numerous other health inspection reports for restaurants in the jurisdiction [might have been] filed with the resulting effect that the non-inspected restaurant's score changes due to a result of its mean average score within the jurisdiction changing. Part of the program ‘racks and stacks’ all of the restaurants within the area from best to worse scores. That averaging effect can and does effect non inspected restaurants scores and can improve them, if other restaurants post poor scores or lower the score if other restaurants have improving scores."
Il Canale's Russoniello has responded to the blog post by email with a poorly written tirade, much of it in capital letters, to the effect (inter alia) that he did not consent to have me quote him in the blog post, that Yelp users are losers because they sometimes ask for ingredients that he does not think are appropriate and because their reviews reflect their own ignorance of how good Il Canale's cooking is, and in any event it is only a small fraction of all their diners who post reviews.