Could this case set a new precedent when it comes to online reputation management and the law?
No sooner did we finish discussing the fact that Yelp itself acknowledges 16% of the reviews submitted to its site to be fakes (which leaves, in our opinions, a significantly higher actual number as the reality), than we came across a very interesting case connected to unmasking those who leave negative reviews believed to be false.
Taking alleged false reviews to court
Virginia-based Hadeed Carpet Cleaning claims that seven Yelp reviews bashing their service, in detail, are completely made up. Not only do they claim the reviews are false, but that the posters were never actually customers at all. In response to each bad review, Hadeed Carpet has asked for more information in order to set things right, but judging from the fact that they asked Yelp to reveal the true identities of said reviewers we’d assume nobody was taking them up on the offer!
Of course Yelp refused, and the case went before a Virginia court, where Hadeed won, then again before the Virginia Court of Appeals, where the decision was upheld.
But posting your opinion is freedom of speech, right? Well…yes, but businesses have a right to be free from defamation as well, and if reviews are indeed completely falsified then that would absolutely qualify as “the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of a business.”
How did the court come to this decision? The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen reports:
The court turned to Virginia’s state law, which requires, among other things, that the plaintiff need show that the reviews “are or may be tortious or illegal,” or that Hadeed Carpet Cleaning has “a legitimate, good faith basis” to believe that they were the victim of actionable conduct. The court held that the lower court’s assessment was correct: “If the Doe defendants were not customers of Hadeed, then their Yelp reviews are defamatory.” Moreover, the court believed that Hadeed had conducted a sufficient review of its own corporate records to have “a legitimate, good faith basis” for believing the reviewers had invented their claims.
According to the attorney who argued against Hadeeds, the company attempted to match the psudonyms used on Yelp with their customer database and couldn’t pair them up, something that, to be fair, probably holds true for a huge number of Yelp reviewers.
What does this mean to my organization?
This holds a couple of implications for your own crisis management. First off, you absolutely must not “stuff the ballot box” by leaving good reviews of your own organization under false accounts, even if you feel your competition is leaving false reviews. Secondly, the tactic of leaving bad reviews, or asking friends to leave bad reviews, on sites belonging to competitors is 100% off limits. This was always unethical, but now the possibility of being caught, unmasked, and facing legal action is very much a reality.
In the end, if you provide the services you promise, treat your customers well, and do your best to resolve issues with diplomacy and humility, you stand a good chance of avoiding problems like the one Hadeed Carpet Cleaning is facing now. And, if you’d like to make sure you have plenty of good reviews to overshadow any bad ones, whether they were simply from an impossible-to-please customer or downright false, remember there’s nothing wrong with reminding happy customers to hop on Yelp and share the same positive comments they’re saying to you on the spot!
The BCM Blogging Team