Leaving Negative Reviews Online is Not As Safe As It Used To Be

Thursday, January 09, 2014 - 11:00 AM

There was a time when leaving negative reviews of a business on the internet was a no risk proposition. If a company burned you, or even if you were a competitor leaving a fake review, the business couldn't really do anything about it. That appears, however slowly, to be changing.

Yesterday, the Washington Times reported that a Virginia court has ruled that Yelp must turn over the real identities of several reviewers. The owner of a carpet cleaning company filed the suit, saying that the reviews in question were not left by real customers. Yelp's lawyers argued that Joe Hadeed, the company's owner, failed to prove that the reviews were fake, but the court said Virginia had a different standard of proof than other parts of the country, and ordered yelp to comply.

It's well established that bad online reviews have a profound effect on a company's bottom line. Recently there have been a handful of lawsuits against online reviewers. A few companies have even started building a "non-disparagement clause" into their contracts, although this has been met with its own negative backlash.

I worked for a moving company for a few years in New York City, and I saw first hand how capricious and arbitrary bad reviews on Yelp could affect a business. The company's owner, a friend of mine, would try desperately to reach out to reviewers, and even refund jobs just to get people to alter negative reviews.

At the same time, there should be a space for people to be able to leave honest reviews if they had a bad experience. The bar to get negative reviews removed (or even to get the identities of reviewers) should be higher than those exhibited in this Virginia case.

So is there a good solution? This may be difficult to implement, but I've always wondered why there can't be some kind of "proof of purchase" requirement for reviews. Amazon could easily remove the ability to review an item if it has no record that the user purchased it. Or Yelp could build a system where before a customer could leave a review, the business would have to issue a code that would then be entered into Yelp as proof that the customer had actually used its services. The business could even put the code on its receipts.

Maybe I'm falling into the "innovation fixes everything" trap, and neither of my ideas is foolproof. But until something gives on either side, I see lawsuits like this continuing, and if this recent ruling is any indication, leaving online reviews is starting to feel like downloading on LimeWire did in 2004. You're likely to fly under the radar, but some company might just choose you at random and try to make an example of you.


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Comments [9]

Nikoletta Sinko from New Orleans

I just got fired because someone posted a horrible review about me about asking a customer to tip me in cash so I can keep the money to myself. The whole thing is a lie and I'm thinking a coworker framed me by using 3 drunk guys as my table as a background. One of them Facebook friended me to apologize for them being drunk and when I told him what happened he couldn't believe it! They'll all gonna go into the restaurant and get things straight. I probably won't get my job back and now I'm marked untrustworthy in the industry. Should I contact a lawyer or do you have any advice?
Thank you

Apr. 19 2014 06:43 PM

The problem with putting the burden of proof on Yelp as "phil28" suggests is that it is borderline impossible for an independent company like Yelp to decide what are factual errors. What burden of proof is sufficient ? In particular, when they get into the business of essentially fact checking reviews (albeit on demand), they will have to take a certain responsibility for the correctness. This again will open the door to a legal hell that no company wants to be in.

Regarding "phil28" post, I find it also rude and unresponsible to post names that way.

Jan. 14 2014 11:58 PM
Aj from New Orleans

I absolutely agree that there should be some form of "proof of purchase" for neg or pos reviews on yelp. I personally know of a case where a false neg review got a friend of mine fired from a bar job because she refused service to a group of obviously intoxicated young men. I was at the pub the night it happened, and the next day a negative campaign began on yelp (and on the pub's FB)claiming all sorts of thing about her. They fired her.

Other restaurants in town have a policy of 3 neg reviews and a server is let go, no investigation as the truth of the matter, or say perhaps a jilted boyfriend posted garbage.

Jan. 12 2014 03:35 PM

Yelp has brought this on themselves. I've done research for a newspaper article and have spoken to many businesses with both positive and negative reviews. What's consistent is that Yelp doesn't respond to complaints of wrong information about the businesses, will not respond when businesses are reviewed by competitors or non-customers.

I've viewed images of several businesses' Yelp pages before and after they began paying Yelp $300 per month for "advertising", and the same negative reviews shown at the top of the page, moved to Yelp's section of untrusted reviews once the payments began. Yelp operates much like an extortion racket: pay and your business will be shown in a more positive light and you will be able to communicate with your salesperson to correct errors. Don't pay and we will ignore you, and in some cases push negative reviews to the top of the list.

These are Yelp's board of directors and they should be contacted by those that believe they've been wronged by Yelp:

Jeremy Stoppelman
Geoff Donaker
Fred Anderson
Peter Fenton
Robert Gibbs
Diane Irvine
Max Levchin
Jeremy Levine
Keith Rabois

Jan. 10 2014 12:56 PM

I think this brings up two very important issues. The first is whether there should be a legal protection against law suits and other legal actions intended to impair speech of consumers (aka SLAPP suits http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_lawsuit_against_public_participation ). I do think that this should be addressed as well as other speech and what can be considered anonymous. I would hope that people dismiss most anonymous speech when anonymity is unnecessary as it would be once legal reform to protect online speech is enacted.

The second issue is the role of identity and authentication. Indicating that one is a consumer is inadequate without some authentication. It is much easier to authenticate a purchaser within the online system of the seller as opposed to in an independent site. Unfortunately, tweets and blog posts are rarely aggregated in ways that provide others to access them as reviews associated with a product or service that can be easily found. A twitter account and blog are good at allowing the reviewer to prove their personal identity and gain a reputation and at the same time avoid the potential issues of moderation and authentication of a reviewer on the seller's or independent review site. It would be better if the reviewer owned their words, however there are not unique identifiers (URLS for example) that are available for every reviewed subject.

Instead of or in addition to the receipt number there should be a URL/unique identifier for the specific item generically (e.g. Model number or restaurant), the specific transaction, and the specific serial number if possible. This would allow the blog post or review web page to be easily aggregated by search engines and have a higher level of authentication for the reviewer and their relationship with the seller (actual customer versus rogue reviewer). In addition there is a HTML5 metadata standard for reviews that would provide even more applications and analysis across multiple reviewers and sites (microdata).

Jan. 09 2014 01:35 PM
Martin Hackworth

First off, congrats on a nuanced view of a complex issue. Like a lot of us, I've been on both sides of this. On one hand, I don't want others to be burned by doing business with shysters. On the other, I, personally, have been burned by online reviews by individuals that I can guarantee I have never met, who are, in fact, acting as agents for someone else. So the rub is how to encourage honesty. When we figure that one out, we'll all be a lot better off - in more ways than one.

Jan. 09 2014 01:05 PM
Ryan from Boston, MA

Does reputation.com still sponsor OTM? I remember hearing the "ads" for it on the podcast and always thought it was weird, since I assume they run their business by threatening bad/suspected fake reviewers with litigation.

Jan. 09 2014 12:55 PM
Derek Bee

God, LimeWire.

Jan. 09 2014 12:12 PM
Duffy Johnson

Alex, the code on the receipt idea is genius. You need to market that!!

The Yelp case in VA illustrates the diminishing nature of anonymity on the internet, which is probably a good thing. In the last few years I've been transforming nearly my entire web identity to my actual name, and it seems to be working out ok...so far.

Jan. 09 2014 11:52 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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