Be careful with that new "consumer review" site of yours

YelpWe’re beginning to see more and more local media companies introducing consumer reviews as a part of local search sites. It’s a smart move, because it introduces companies to the world of social media. The old saw about everybody having an opinion comes into play, but two items in the news this year reveal that the space is a potential minefield.

Yelp is the father of consumer review sites, and it’s a growing powerhouse across the country. Birthed in the San Francisco Bay area, where social media also has its roots, the local version has hundreds of thousands of “reviews,” making it the ideal place to study long-term aspects of the genre. A San Francisco Chronicle article earlier this month noted that defamation suits are increasing and asks whether websites that offer consumer reviews should be liable for statements made by reviewers. Such sites are currently protected, but this issue will sooner or later end up in the highest court.

The Chronicle article notes the case of a local dentist.

Yvonne Wong, a pediatric dentist in Foster City, recently sued Los Altos couple Tai Jing and Jia Ma after they criticized her treatment of their son in a posting on Yelp. They questioned her use of laughing gas and said they were angry she had used fillings containing mercury.

Wong’s lawyer, Marc TerBeek of Oakland, said the review is false, and Yelp has since taken it down.

…Californians who get sued over something they’ve posted online are protected by a state anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). While the law does not permit libel, it does protect people who speak out on matters of public interest, including protection of consumers, said Mark Goldowitz, an attorney who founded the California anti-SLAPP Project in Berkeley.

Goldowitz, who represents the defendants in Wong’s suit, said he’s asked that the suit be dismissed. He said dentists and other professionals are especially thin-skinned about online reviews and are prone to sue, even though they are finding that lawsuits are not the best way to resolve these disputes.

Consider Steven Biegel, a San Francisco chiropractor who recently settled a suit against a former patient, Christopher Norberg, after Norberg used Yelp to criticize Biegel’s billing practices. Biegel’s Yelp page has since been littered with negative comments about his practice and about his decision to sue Norberg from people he said he’s never treated.

“It’s called flaming,” Biegel said, “bombarding someone with negativity. It’s an unfortunate chink in the system.”

And perhaps even worse than the defamation suits involving Yelp is the most recent accusation, that the company is practicing a form of extortion in using negative reviews to strong-arm potential advertisers. In a sweeping article on the subject last week, the East Bay Express wrote of accusations from the local business community that Yelp salespeople are saying they can “help” move negative reviews to the bottom, if businesses will buy an advertising schedule on the site. Yelp vehemently denies the accusations, but the article — and others like it — are bringing local business owners to the surface with complaints.

In the article, writer Kathleen Richards speaks with John, an East Bay restaurant owner who tells of an offer by a Yelp salesperson (Mike) to move negative reviews for $299. “When you do get a call from Yelp, and you go to the site, it looks like they have been moved,” John told the paper. “You don’t know if they happen to be at the top legitimately or if the rep moved them to the top. You don’t even know if this is someone who legitimately doesn’t like your restaurant. … Almost all the time when they call you, the bad ones will be at the top.”

In denying the claim, Yelp says that its secret algorithm is what decides where the reviews are placed, but some business owners are suspicious of the coincidences.

John may sound paranoid, but he’s got company. During interviews with dozens of business owners over a span of several months, six people told this newspaper that Yelp sales representatives promised to move or remove negative reviews if their business would advertise. In another six instances, positive reviews disappeared — or negative ones appeared — after owners declined to advertise.

Because they were often asked to advertise soon after receiving negative reviews, many of these business owners believe Yelp employees use such reviews as sales leads. Several, including John, even suspect Yelp employees of writing them. Indeed, Yelp does pay some employees to write reviews of businesses that are solicited for advertising. And in at least one documented instance, a business owner who refused to advertise subsequently received a negative review from a Yelp employee.

Many business owners, like John, feel so threatened by Yelp’s power to harm their business that they declined to be interviewed unless their identities were concealed. (John is not the restaurant owner’s real name.) Several business owners likened Yelp to the Mafia, and one said she feared its retaliation. “Every time I had a sales person call me and I said, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t make sense for me to do this,’ … then all of a sudden reviews start disappearing.” To these mom-and-pop business owners, Yelp’s sales tactics are coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal.

Steve and I echo the comments of Stowe Boyd on the matter. “If Yelp is in fact — directly or indirectly — using strong-arm tactics,” Boyd wrote, “they should deal with the consequences, which may include legal action. I hope there is a DA out there somewhere willing to look into these allegations.” He also calls for a boycott of Yelp, if indeed the allegations are true.

The salespeople could be innocently trying to “help” business owners in the community through ad campaigns, but the suggestion that the sales side can influence the content of the site in the name of making a sale is extremely serious and a warning to any company that is getting into this space. Be careful how you represent yourself.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

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