Fusion

I use Yelp fairly frequently for finding restaurants, but I rarely log in. Recently, though, I logged in to leave a review and got notified about a "privacy settings update." For more than a year, Yelp has had "activity feeds" for businesses that give them more information about their customers. These feeds make it so that every time I get directions to a business, call them, or click on their Yelp page, the businesses get a notification that "a woman from San Francisco" is the one doing it. Had I given a birthdate when I first signed up for Yelp, it would also reveal my age range.

The default setting was to display my demographic data — gender, age, and hometown.

But users can tweak the setting to display more or less. This is what it can look like to a business:

Advertisement

What this means, in practice, is that businesses have a pretty precise idea of who's looking them up. If the hypothetical restaurant above were watching its activity feed on the night 'Superwoman' called to order takeout (and didn't mind creeping her out), it could answer the phone, "Hi, Diana."

Yelp told me the settings went into effect over a year ago, when the company changed its privacy policy. "The Activity Feed helps local businesses learn more about their customers, and better understand how Yelp is driving business to them," said Yelp spokesperson Rachel Walker. "We put users in control of the level of information about themselves that they would like to share."

Advertisement

She noted that any demographics included in the listings were submitted by a Yelp user when they first created their profile.

It seems that even hardcore users of Yelp didn't notice the change until 2014, when some took to Yelp's forums to discuss it. "Is anyone else annoyed by the lack of a 'none of the above' option in the new privacy settings?" wrote Tiger W. from Three Cocks (an unfortunately named town in the U.K.) last January. "It's rather douchebaggy for a business to force something like this on users," wrote Seattle F last February. Fellow Yelpers were unconcerned: "A business finding out your name and gender?" wrote Kat from Seattle. "I don't think that is hurting anyone's privacy." And some were downright dismissive of the concerns: "Yep, government drones are on their way to get you as we speak, just take 2 steps to your left so I can get you in focus on the sat cam," wrote Michael K. sarcastically.

Some users wondered what the advantages were to revealing your name to a business you're searching. No one was able to come up with an obvious advantage beyond getting a "high five from an owner or manager upon arrival."

Advertisement

According to Yelp's spokesperson, only users who created accounts after November 2013 share their age, gender and hometown with businesses by default. Everyone else has to opt-in. And if you're logged out, said Walker, only your "basic information" is displayed in a business's feed.

If you want your local CVS to know your name and age before you stop by for shampoo, Yelp's settings might give you comfort. But if you want businesses to know less about you when you interact with their Yelp page, you can log in to your account and change the setting here.