Posted January 7, 2009 10:04 am by with 38 comments

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Update: Both parties settled the case in mediation today.

As consumer review sites continue to gain popularity, they appear destined to play an important role in the public perception of any businesses’ online reputation.

That is, unless the consumers screw it up for themselves.

You see, over the past few months I’ve noticed a growing trend of consumers making vague, petty, or downright defamatory complaints. Apparently, I’m not seeing things as CNET reports that a Yelp user is being sued by a chiropractor who claims his review is defamatory.

The lawsuit, filed February 25, 2008, alleges that Biegel [the chiropractor] has suffered loss of reputation and business as a result of the review and seeks punitive damages. According to the lawsuit, the review allegedly contained false statements and inaccuracies that suggested Biegel was dishonest and accused him of fraudulent billing practices.

The attorney for the reviewer, Christopher Norberg, claims his client’s review is “constitutionally protected speech” while Eric Nordskog, the attorney for chiropractor Steven Biegel, sees things very differently:

“Dr. Biegel has no problem with people expressing their views and opinions about his service,” Nordskog said. “But there is a line where if someone, even on Yelp or on the Internet, publishes a false statement of fact as opposed to an opinion, then that person can and should be held responsible for their words.”

The outcome of this lawsuit–which could come as early as this week–could change the entire future of consumer review sites. But, even if the chiropractor is not successful in proving defamation, it may not be long before consumer review sites hit a bumpy road.

What Could Kill Review Sites?

As consumers, our new-found channels for expressing our opinions–about our encounters with a business–are a great privilege. Unfortunately, there are two things that could bring consumer complaint/review sites crashing to their knees:

  1. Anonymous reviews – there are very few sites that ensure the reviewer is accountable for his or her words. How is it fair for a competitor, disgruntled employee, or ex-spouse to pose as an unhappy customer but remain veiled by anonymity?
  2. Defamatory reviews – writing that your dinner was cold and the waiter appeared to be in a bad mood, is one thing. But, when you make statements of fact, when indeed they are fiction or opinion, you run the risk of being sued.

The biggest problem is how do we educate millions of consumers on the “rules” of posting a review? We can’t! We have to find a better way of allowing consumers to share their opinions, while at the same time protecting businesses from defamatory attacks.

Anyone have a suggestion of how we can fix this? Or do you believe it’s not broken?

  • How do you hold a consumer accountable for their review and still have a site that the average person would be willing to post their feelings on? Can it be made sure, would it be successful I doubt it.

    One of the more successful ways I’ve found on Car Dealer Check is to allow the consumer to write their review, once the review is up I notify the dealer in question that a review has been posted and I give them a link to a free membership. Once they sign up they can communicate with the reviewer through a private messaging system (reviewers email never given out) or reply to the review directly on site. If the dealership and reviewer come to an agreement the reviewer can then update the review with a new score.

    That’s the best I’ve thought of to keep everyone happy.

    Dennis Dornon’s last blog post..Best Value Roofing, Yorba Linda Sucks

  • As long as comments are not offensive, it is not broken imo. Offensive comments should be moderated by review site.

    Linas Sablovskis’s last blog post..Krize – ka daryt? kas vyksta?

    • Yes, you said it right. Offensive and obscene reviews should be moderated.

  • I agree with Dennis, the chiropractor should have just engaged in conversation with the Yelp member. It goes a lot further. What happens if the former customer is unreasonable? There’s nothing you can do about it but becoming a part of the community and letting others know you care and they can talk to you.

    KyNam Doan’s last blog post..Green Any Site – Green your eShopping with a Single Click

  • Good point about anonymous reviews. Especially considering the suit the model filed against Google.

    Chris Crum’s last blog post..Google Makes Getting Directions to Businesses Easier

  • Shawn Mottley

    I’m surprised it took this look long for this type of lawsuit. One big site like SCAM dot com has people really laying into companies and businesses, but I’ve never seen or heard of any lawsuits. The site however allows rebuttals to be made from the business in question, which Yelp should provide if it hasn’t done so.
    I agree with Dennis’s method of contacting the business that was reviewed to give them a chance to respond.

  • Very surprised myself. It definitely has taken a while for a web site to get sued. Especially for the reasons. Let’s just hope that there are not lawsuits being handed out left and right after this.

    Blog Expert’s last blog post..20 Factors to Better Google Rankings

  • Isn’t Internet a place know for being able to write anything about anyone? Some people still don’t understand that. :S

  • I’m with Linas. Blatantly obvious flames should just be deleted. Similar to a wiki system where people’s comments get edited out.

    However, if a person lies, that’s their own problem for being an idiot. It’s a shame if it causes people to lose faith in these sites but the likelihood of it being done in large waves is small.

  • Sometimes 100 good reviews can’t make up for 1 bad review.

    Utah SEO Pro’s last blog post..An Interview with Utah SEO Pro (Jordan Kasteler) by Martin Bowling

  • Review sites open up pandora’s box. Positive comments present no problem while, as necessary as they are, negative ones need to verified/moderated. I think that there needs to be some way to verify legitimate identity even if it isn’t published. People need to remember that there is a thin line between free speech and slander/libel. The Internet isn’t a free for all. However, truth is truth (it’s also a defense for slander claims) and companies do need to be held accountable for their crappy service or when they don’t live up to their obligations.

    Scott’s last blog post..Google No Longer at War with Search Engine Optimizers

  • epc

    People keep mistaking the First Amendment as a get-out-of-jail-free card to say and write whatever they want without repercussions or consequences. *ALL* the First Amendment does is prevent governments (in the US only) from blocking one’s speech. It does not guarantee free speech any time, any where. It does not guarantee speech without consequences. So the idea that there’s a constitutional right to free speech on a private forum like Yelp or any other private review site is patently false.

  • Educating millions of consumers on the “rules” of posting a review is going to be tough to do. The nature of the web makes it practically impossible. People that want to express their opinions about a business can find ways of making their voices heard. Unfortunately, we know of a couple of sites that have had to remove reviews under the threat of legal action. However, nothing can stop the review author from simply reposting the review somewhere else – search engines will take care of the rest.

    The rules of the road ultimately have to be established and enforced by each site.

    The way our site, Customer Lobby, addresses this is to only publish reviews when the review author is willing to identify themselves to the company being reviewed. That way, the business has the chance to fix whatever the problem was. If someone wants to remain anonymous, we still pass the feedback on to the company but we do not publish the information publicly.

  • Steven Parker

    The problem with yelp is the encourage “irreverent” reviews and they don’t do a very decent job of either moderating or verifying identities of reviewers. Why should they? The more people that write free reviews is more “numbers” about their content.

    The advertisers need to take a deeper look at yelp. Sometimes yelp pays for reviews. Sometimes they give free things to certain groups of so-called Elite Squad reviewers. The site is rampant with trolls and fake reviews. Even more so with foul language and content that is anything but a reviews.

    They claim to have millions of reviews. But thousands of them are about insipid topics or foolish things such as their bedroom, an STD or a jail.

    Go any “talk thread”, a place were active members chat and you’ll find a lot of exchanges like an AOL chat room for teenagers. Foul language, bickering and not so much about restaurants or services.

    A user isn’t going to kill these sites, they’re doing of good job of killing themselves.

  • I’m someone who believes that all of us have the right to say whatever we want to say, as long as we’re ready to deal with the consequences. We can all tell our personal story about a bad or good experience with someone without getting into trouble. It’s when someone embellishes that trouble might occur. We had a local guy who created a website that went after one of the largest auto body companies in the area. He got sued, and ended up losing because the judge said he took it too far, especially when the company tried to work things out with him and he refused.

    So, there are limits, but the truth will always win out.

    Mitch’s last blog post..Is Control A Facade?

  • I share your opinion absolutely: everybody has the right to say what he wants to say, but he must be careful about what he is saying.

  • I think people has the right to give an opinion (positive or negative). I guess the companies need to find a way to better deal with the negative comments and hold on their hard earn reputation.

    I remember few years back I was searching for Sanddisk U3 drives on the net and this guy posted pretty bad things about that product in one of the cnet forums. Then after few days, someone from Sandisk actually came to the forum, offered the customer a completely different type of ‘drive’ free of charge that is more suitable for his needs and also a brand new u3 drive (for free).

    And the next thing i know, the customer is all ‘happy’ again and posting good things about sandisk!

    Saad Kamal’s last blog post..Saad’s Hot Picks – Jan 7, 2009

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  • This is a can of worms, isn’t it! Maybe a system where the worst 10% and best 10% of reviews are eliminated, so as to counter potential spam and potential flaming could even things out a bit. Also moderation is obviously needed, and serious complaints need some form of substancification, but if more than one or two complaints of a similar nature gets levelled against any business or service provider the public does have the right to be made aware of the potential pitfalls in dealing with these entities.

  • Yes, this is definitely a problem. But these websites are generally well protected in that they take no responsibility for their users actions. If lawsuits against websites like these work, then so many review sites will have to shut down, such as…

    It’ll be interesting to see how this works out.

    Shirley’s last blog post..Is Search Engine Optimization Unfair For The Little Guy?

  • Newspapers used to perform this task pre internet times and some still do.

    Editors would reserve their rights to edit or disallow publication of malicious content. Rebuttals would be encouraged. Editors would also protect themselves by disowning the content of such matter.

    The same could be done online.

    I still like the approach that Dennis has taken though I would have preferred the aggrieved party being contacted before the publication of the matter.

    Nicole Price’s last blog post..New Year Resolutions to Help You Save Money

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  • Surely that is the point of writing a review?
    Maybe the chiropractor should bribe the review 😉

  • i completely aggre with Mitch. So what we should dowhat we want to do but without damage the others!

    Genel kultur’s last blog post..İNSANIN KÖKENİ

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  • PS3

    I guess cost is always an issue for the person on the end of the defamation. It is probably not cheap to find out who the poster is and commence proceedings.

  • That it took a year to come to litigation shows me that there had to have been some attempt at amelioration; a mediation session takes place tomorrow. I work with SF-based Internet law attorneys with a successful track record of handling online defamation cases in California and in other states. Failing a satisfactory outcome to the mediation tomorrow, this case could be hard on review sites. Karl Kronenberger at Kronenberger Burgoyne told me what hasn’t been adequately addressed is the revenue loss businesses incur while trying to defend their reputations (when negative comments dissuade people from buying online with a business or otherwise redirect people away from the business online). The cost can be huge. It may be hard to differentiate fact and opinion, especially in our often anonymous user culture online, but I think you’re going to see more businesses going after negativity aimed at them, true or false, due to the significant potential losses. Like emails that come back to haunt the sender, reviewers are going to have to double check that what they’re saying is fact or opinion. Could help with sloppy thinking and spurious writing.

  • This is a ridiculous case. People will find any reason to sue others. People have the right to say what they believe and I agree with mitch as well in that they must also suffer the consequences when they do say things that may offend others. The big problem here is that Yelp should have better moderated the review and they should be held more responsible than the guy being sued.

    Patrick’s last blog post..Are We Eating Too Much Meat?

  • I really think that sites like Yelp are going to get into more trouble than their users are in the long run…or at least there’s the potential for it. What if it was revealed that Yelp was infact, censoring entries because one of their sponsors or advertisers wanted to get rid of some badmouthing? Or that the Consumerist had been really bought by Comcast, Dell, or AT&T, and was manipulating their entries to make papa moneybags look better (or at least not as bad). Neither of these situations is reality, but the internet has always been the home of complainers and outspoken moaners, anonymous or not. The system’s not broken, because responsible companies are doing their best to provide better customer service, knowing that will get them farther than suits ever will. Look at the TurboTax changes after all the negative

    Small businesses could be in danger of attacks like this in an effort to defame a particular person. But that’s a danger that they face in newspapers and word of mouth, too. And honestly, the best way to combat reviews like that is always word of mouth, because you look like you’re covering something up if you sue for what amounts to bad press.

    Think about malpractice, or sexual harassment suits…how many are true? How many are assumed to be true?

    Caitlin Rosberg’s last blog post..David Armano is my god

  • I like the suggestion made at — get right back on Yelp and respond directly and non-computationally (he gives a possible response that looks great).

    Dale Larson’s last blog post..Obama’s Blackberry: “They’re going to have to pry it out of my hands”

  • I think everyone has the right to express his opinion, either negative or positive. However it should be based on facts but not fiction. As a consumer I am free to share my bad or good experience either to encourage or warn other people.

  • don’t call it a review anyway, they don’t take it as an improvement?

    John’s last blog post..Busby SEO Test the hard way

  • Jeff Anderson

    The answer is very simple – give exponentially more weight to those reviews that are written by a person whose identity has been verified and is using their real name. People are much more likely to write truthful and fair reviews when the world knows who they are.

    Anonymity is what will kills the usefulness of consumer review sites.

  • Tim

    I think the question comes back to “Who is the Publisher?”
    – is a review or a blog comment self publishing ?
    – does the blogger or site owner take editorial responsibility and therefore become the publisher?
    This is not a new phenomenon but it is hard to control and manage, especially if you are scarred of being sued. The “Publisher” needs to take responsibility for what appears, if it is defamatory or slanderous then they must suffer the consequences.
    Quilmes Verano comment is just too basic and he is definitely living in a different world to mine.

    Tim’s last blog post..Got it Wrong!

  • A D

    There are quite a of fake reviews. My friend took screenshots of one fake review and posted it for others to see.

    This is a an example of a coffee shop in Oakland, powderface who wrote fake reviews of their own establishment. Unfortunately, once it has been taken down, there is no way for other consumers to see that it has been flagged.

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  • it is a review site what can you expect.

    thewutzupphilippines’s last blog post..CHR not in favor of testing

  • It’s sad that people post fake reviews, because online reviews can be beneficial. They need some sort of Documented Reviews website to filter bogus claims. It is amazing how easy it is to destroy someones name or reputation online by utilizing a popular article website or something of that nature.