The most powerful recommendation of all is word-of-mouth. When someone tells someone else that they love a product and use it themselves, it urges the people who hear them or who read their review online to check the product out. They may buy it, too, just because someone else told them it was great. They don’t necessarily have to know the person, either.

But word-of-mouth goes both ways, and the idea of negative online reviews is being hashed out in court.

It seems that one Jane Perez posted a bad review of a contractor (Dietz Development), saying that Dietz stole a piece of jewelry from her home. Perez stated that Dietz was the only one who had access, so he or someone working for him had to be the thief, though she has absolutely no proof in the matter. Of course, Dietz has no proof that he didn’t steal the jewelry, but he sued Perez in Fairfax County, VA for $75,000, saying that he lost at least $30K in business because of her bad review.

At first, the court said that Perez had to take her reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List down. But the ACLU and Public Citizen appealed the decision, claiming freedom of speech, and the case found its way to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The higher court overturned the temporary injunction, ruling:

“Upon further consideration whereof, the Court also finds that the preliminary injunction was not justified and that the respondents have an adequate remedy at law.

This means Perez could leave the reviews, as is, because neither of the participants in the case could prove what happened one way or the other. How is that fair? It’s not, but in the United States, we relish our freedom of speech.

When you go to Yelp, there’s a lot of conversation from January 3, when Cris Crum posted an article about this in Web Pro News, entitled, “Yelp Reviews Ruled Free Speech Until Proven Defamatory. Right Call?“.  But there are lots of bloggers writing about the lawsuit this week. Is it a free speech issue, or is it a defamation issue? Hard to say.

However…

There’s a post from one person who gave the company a 5-star rating because the company stood up for freedom of speech.  But if you never use a company, how can you rate it? How is that possible, and does it mean that Yelp ratings are less than accurate?

To present the question another way: two more people posted, saying just the opposite:

yelp reviews

As far as I’m concerned, they could all be bogus comments. I have no idea whether they are or not, but it doesn’t seem right that people can post an opinion about a company they have never done business with.

As a business owner, how can you combat this online hit and run?

You really can’t. If people want to be nasty, they can, and it’s been that way since the Internet was formed. If your business runs into a situation such as this, you should try very hard to get all the good stuff you can out there. Get your good reviews outweighing the bad, and not just on Yelp — in any directory that applies to your business. I’d ask my customers to help, too.

That’s assuming your business does good work or has quality products.

As a point of interest, the two reviews in the image above have gone away in a matter of minutes. In total, there were 9 “reviews,” which were more like comments, and in Yelp’s favor, they did stop access to the hurtful comments above. However, the two reviews remaining are both 5 star “ratings” from people who apparently never did business with Deitz, either, making Yelp reviews suspect overall.

It’s a shame that this can happen. Yelp should take better care to make sure the person using the service has actually used the business or product that they’re reviewing, and perhaps, give the business owner the opportunity to respond or to deny some of its reviews.  Any smart business person knows that a 100% glowing reputation is suspect, just as is a 100% negative one.

Aside from the freedom of speech issue, we believe that Yelp needs to figure this out or quickly become a website that people won’t trust. What do you think? Is this a freedom of speech issue or is everyone innocent, until proven guilty?  Let us know your comments.

 

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