“Yelp”-ing for Help: Online Reviews and Your Business

How many times have you consulted online customer reviews before booking an appointment at that new salon, ordering a sweater online, or deciding to try a new restaurant? According to a recent BrightLocal survey, roughly 86% of U.S. consumers consult online reviews before patronizing a local business. For good reason, small businesses are becoming protective of positive reviews, while trying to prevent or limit negative online reviews.

Consider the following scenario, based on a client’s real-life experience:

Recently, a local business (let’s call it ABC, Inc.) discovered that a one-star review was posted on Google Reviews. This reviewer alleged that her boyfriend had initially been impressed with the customer service he received at ABC, Inc. However, on his next visit to the business several months later, he claimed that the cashier was very rude to him and unhelpful. The reviewer ended her review stating that she would not recommend doing business at ABC, Inc.

Luckily for ABC, Inc., its marketing director makes it a point to respond to all Google Reviews, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Since the reviewer did not name her boyfriend, the marketing director was unable to identify the customer and locate his invoice. A few quick clicks on the reviewer’s social media page revealed the name of her boyfriend without much work. However, when the marketing director tried to locate the customer in their database, there was no record that this person had ever done business with ABC, Inc. Further, the reviewer’s social media profile connected an ABC, Inc. former employee to her as her mother. The former employee had just been terminated from employment a few days prior to the review being posted. It did not take long for ABC, Inc. to conclude that the review was fake and posted out of spite.

The beauty of online customer reviews is that the reviewer can post their honest experience with a product or business in a less formal way. However, as any business owner would likely tell you, the flip side of online reviews is that some reviews are sprinkled with hyperbole and can border on defamation, all on public display on the internet. The good news is that, depending on the content of a review, there can be legal recourse available. If a review is blatantly false and spews a completely made-up version of facts, such as the review above, a business may have a basis for a defamation claim. However, it is highly recommended that a business take less drastic measures before seriously considering the legal route. Also, it is important for a business to balance the cost of litigation with the damage done as a result of the negative review. Sometimes, the math simply does not work out. In ABC, Inc.’s case, the marketing director contacted the reviewer privately, confronted her with the information she obtained, and requested that she take the review down – no litigation needed.

Oftentimes, delineating whether an online review is defamatory is not that simple. More often than not, the circumstances a review is based upon are actually true. However, the reviewer’s opinion may be a bit out of proportion, a misunderstanding/miscommunication, or an unsupported interpretation. These types of online reviews are likely not actionable as defamation claims, but if a defamation claim is questionable, an attorney should be consulted.

Online reviews can be both a blessing and a curse. However, a business does not have to tolerate reviews that are flat-out untrue. Knowing your legal rights as a business will benefit your online presence and keep your customers coming.

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