Yelp's move toward the small, cartoon-like figures used on mobile devices hints at the future.
Last week, as a result of its most recent hackathon, Yelp rolled out a new system for its mobile apps: the ability to search business listings with small, cartoon-like figures called emojis. So: looking for a nearby pizza spot? Type a pizza emoji into your search field. Want to wash it down with an IPA? Type in a beer emoji. The system started as many a hackathon project does—a cheeky in-joke. But Yelp then thought its coders might be onto something. As Rachel Walker, a company spokesperson, put it: "We enjoyed it so much we wanted to share the fun with Yelpers."
Emoji search is, for the user, efficient. Why type out "ramen," five whole letters, when you can type a single bowl of ramen as a single character? As emojis become more and more common not just as punctuation, but as replacements for words themselves, it makes sense that Yelp is meeting users where they are. And where, more specifically, their International Emoji Keyboards lead them.
But there's a more significant efficiency here—one that has less to do with the user's interests, and much more to do with the interests of Yelp itself. Words are, as far as computers are concerned, messy and inconvenient. They're hard to parse. They can be strung together in weird ways—ways that totally transform their meanings. They can possess an artificial intelligence designer's worst nightmare: a tone.
Emojis, on the other hand—as far as machines and their minds are concerned—are much more straightforward. The images' tones are implied; semantically, they map to one meaning. And because of that, as Slate's Alison Griswold points out, emojis "can be extremely useful for tech companies when it comes to labeling and collecting data." They're effectively emotional tags applied to content, visual equivalents of labels and hashtags.
And, like hashtags, they can be extremely valuable in terms of sorting and organizing that content. They're much more precise than adjectives, and much more efficient than sentences. And because of that they can lead, Griswold notes, to things like more effective advertising and better data mining. Emojis can offer, in all their cheekiness and quirk, a shorthanded way to do what every consumer-facing tech company and its algorithms want to accomplish, in the end: to understand, in the most efficient way possible, what their customers want.