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Court Kills Anonymous Yelp Reviews: Should You Be Celebrating?

Jean Dion • January 28, 2014

Mention the word "yelp" in the middle of a room filled with small business owners, and you're likely to be rewarded with shudders, eye rolls and a few whispered curses. That's because the site allows real consumers to post their opinions about the companies they've done business with, and often, those little messages aren't positive. Plus, when those posts are up on the site, there's little to nothing a business owner can do to fight back.

I've written about Yelp before (see posts here and here). Typically, I suggest that small business owners targeted by Yelp can approach the problem in a few ways:

  1. They can contact the consumer and ask for a retraction.
  2. They can respond to the review online, while remaining calm and professional (no insults!).
  3. They can ignore the negative and focus on getting more positive comments.

But, one business owner did something completely different. He went to court, and he sued in order to get the names of the people who wrote negative reviews about his business. Recently, he won that case.

Now, this decision has a lot of people dancing in the aisles, as they think the results of this specific case will change the way in which Yelp does business, and perhaps, they'll have a smaller risk of being attacked via Yelp in the future. As for me, I still advise caution.

                                                 Hidden Yelp Review

Case Specifics

Fake reviews are the bane of business owners everywhere, and while Yelp does attempt to remove or filter reviews that seem somehow fraudulent, many more seem to slip through the cracks. Case in point: A study that came to my attention in 2013 suggests that at least 16 percent of all Yelp restaurant reviews are fake. That's right. Of the reviews that were published and visible, a pretty big percentage of them had no merit.

Some people post fake reviews simply because they have a little venom to spare and a little free time on their hands. But, some people use Yelp to beat back their competitors. Creating a Yelp account takes just minutes, and given the atrocious spelling that seems so common on Yelp, few people bother to slave over their entries. By spending just 15 minutes or so, a competitor could drag your company's name through the mud.

In the past, finding out who wrote these things was exceedingly difficult. Yelp doesn't require users to provide their real names, so clicking on a profile doesn't help. However, Yelp does keep track of some information about each person who posts. Email addresses, IP addresses and other bits and bytes are stored by the administrators, and presumably, that data could be used to help a business find out who is throwing dirt.

But, it can be difficult to persuade Yelp to turn over that information, experts say. For example, Public Citizen suggests that Yelp shouldn't be forced to turn over the records made by users unless the business owner can prove that the reviews are fake. This is an amazingly circular argument, considering that many small business owners want these records in order to determine/prove that the reviews are fake. If they could prove that the reviews stem from false pretenses, there would be no need for the records at all. But I digress…

Anonymous

In this case, the court agreed that Yelp should turn over the records concerning reviews on the Hadeed Carpet web page. The New York Times suggests that Yelp is appealing the decision, which might explain why the Yelp page in question still contains so many terrible comments and such a low score. But still, I'm not quite sure that there's much to celebrate, even if this business owner emerges victorious in the appeals process.

Yelp's Terms

Knowing who wrote a defamatory comment seems important, in terms of fighting back against Yelp. After all, companies that know the names of their attackers can file big lawsuits in court, and sometimes, they stand to reap huge rewards. That seems to be the case for a contractor in D.C., as The Washington Post suggests that this contractor has won yet another decision concerning a review he thought was fraudulent. He stands to walk away with $750,000 in damages.

But knowing a consumer's name is only part of the battle, when it comes to Yelp. According to the site's Terms of Service, content that's published, "… cannot always be withdrawn." Even if you know who is attacking you, and you persuade that person to remove the attack, it seems as though some reviews might remain in place for the duration.

Similarly, if you match a person's name to your records and you can find no bill of sale or other indication that money has changed hands, you might reasonably assume that the review is a fraud, and you might go to Yelp and demand the immediate removal of that content. Again, however, the Terms of Service could harm you. Here's a direct quote: "We are under no obligation to enforce the Terms on your behalf against another user." Even if you can point out a problem with the content, the site may choose to turn a blind eye.

Plus, not all business owners keep track of the names of their consumers. Restaurant owners, for example, might not need to know your name, your birthday and your address in order to serve you a hamburger and fries. Knowing the names of your attackers on Yelp might not help you at all, if you can't use those names to determine who's real and who's a faker.

Final Thoughts

It's possible that this lawsuit will have a chilling effect on Yelp. After all, if people can no longer hide behind a pen name as they attack a reputable business, they might be less likely to create a fake account and attack a competitor for no reason.

But, if you think that knowing the names of your attackers on Yelp will magically protect you from future problems, it might be time to think again.

That's where we can help. We have access to a legal team that can help you fight back against a Yelp review, whether or not you know who wrote it, and we can help create a firewall around you and your business, so you really will be safe in the future, no matter what the courts might say. Interested? Check out this link.