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

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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.