Episode #83

Yelp Reviews: The New Frontier of Free Speech

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It's getting risky out there in the comment section. 

This week on New Tech City we bring you a cautionary tale of e-commerce, fine print, and the drastic measures some online retailers will take to protect their reputations, even at the expense of consumers. In part two of our podcast, we explore how a court case over bad Yelp reviews might affect much wider online free speech. It gets extreme. It gets ugly. And it's going to keep happening as the reputation economy keeps growing.

The issue is this: Retailers get nailed by a bad review. Sometimes it's honest, sometimes it's exaggerated, and sometimes the bad review is flat out false and defamatory. But either way, it hurts business. So retailers are trying various ways to stop the reviews from happening: from unfounded financial fees, to extreme copyright claims about the very right to post a review about an experience, to totally justifiable defamation lawsuits. 

This is part 1, the thrills and dangers of rating a company, of a two part series. Part 2, the secret ratings companies keep on customers, is here

If you like these kinds of stories, why not subscribe to the podcast or follow us on Twitter. 

    Music Playlist
  1. Bandstand Extended
    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
  2. Properly Smashed
    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
  3. Fall For Bliss Slowly
    Artist: Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
  4. Through the Night
    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt

Comments [8]

Alec from AZ

I think that some of the problem was indirectly touched on. It is the people reading those reviews. A few bad reviews is expected. I discount negative reviews if the amount of positive reviews are the vast majority. People are many many times more likely to complain than those that take the time to leave a positive review. We the users also have the responsibility to use them properly. One bad review in say, 50 good ones should not damage a business.

May. 03 2014 12:30 AM

This happened to me. I left a 3/5 star review for a contractor on Yelp. (I consider 3/5 to be "ok".) I listed both the positives and negatives. As a result, I was stalked, contractor googled me enough to find out where I worked and with whom I was associated and contacted bosses and other people to bash me (fortunately my reputation preceded me and nobody believed this person), and I actually consulted a lawyer.

Ultimately we decided not to file any paperwork because the contractor seemed to feed off of getting a rise and as a result (for now?) it has stopped. But, I suggest anyone leaving an even marginally negative review watch their back and/or use a pseudonym with those who you hire or do business with. Fortunately for me the company couldn't have well legally gone after me since my comments were legit and their stalking/harassing was certainly not "ok". Moreover, several other reviewers had quite similar issues with the company.

Apr. 30 2014 05:37 PM

When I see that a company has responded politely to the negative reviews, I take it as a good sign that the review is crap, and that it's actually a business that cares.
Sometimes they are apologies for mistakes, sometimes they point out that the incident didn't play out quite like the complainer said, or they say they can't find such an incident ever having taken place. This easily discredits the bad review and makes the business look responsible and reasonable.

Apr. 30 2014 12:01 PM
GillianB from Lont Island NY

Last year I left two reviews on the CVS site ... one complimentary, the other criticizing the delivery of an item ordered online. Guess what?! The critical one was "refused." They didn't like it so they didn't print it, even though it was legitimate in its criticism.

Result: I don't make any more contributions to their reviews ... good or bad.

Apr. 30 2014 11:28 AM
Joaquin Closet from Syracuse, Sicily

This is a real slippery slope, what with the mass opining about net neutrality and what constitutes free speech going on. First of all, a subjective review can't be proven or unproven in the hypothetical; that's why it is subjective in the first place. And secondly, just what is the line one crosses where an establishment owner determines the "Yelper" is truthful or not, or honest or not? I think once you open up anything for comments, then you invite what you get.

Apr. 30 2014 11:18 AM
Jonathan from NYC

This is just a manifestation of what happens when we quit responsible journalism, abandon its standards, stop PAYING professionals to do their job properly and rely on these amateur quasi-reviews; as if they are suddenly as reliable as professional, edited, independently funded reviews.

But there is a more fundamental point at play here, allied to the responsible journalism point: Why would anyone with half a brain want to RELY on a review to which the reviewer wouldn't dare put their name? Especially in a country where there appears to be a constitutional right to defame anonymously?

Apr. 30 2014 09:59 AM

I almost agree, nyITguy. However, even if the defamation is legitimate, bringing a legal battle will ensure a company will lose the PR war. I think a lot of times companies can't see the forest for the trees. If I see one bad yelp review, I'm not going to make that stop me from using a businesses services. SEVERAL bad Yelp reviews, however, and yeah, I'm skipping it.

If one person tells you you're a jerk, they could be the one that's a jerk. If MANY people tell you you're a jerk, the problem could actually be you, and not them...

Apr. 30 2014 09:15 AM

Companies and retailers would serve themselves far better by responding to negative feedback honestly, directly, and with positivity rather than engaging in a war and enlisting lawyers. If they are actually being defamed, that's a case where it might be worthwhile to involve the law, but other than that, I hate seeing businesses that I like let themselves be brought down to the level of the trolls that inevitably try to hurt them.

Apr. 30 2014 08:19 AM

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