Yelp! We all know is a local business directory that has become a formidable player in the game of online search for local businesses including attorneys. Yelp listings include the normal name, address and phone number (“NAP”) information for local businesses like law firms but, also has reviews from consumers who have purportedly had experiences (positive and negative) with the business listed. In a recent Ninth Circuit opinion, the alleged legitimacy of these reviews came into question.
The case was Levitt v. Yelp! Inc. . The case involved a class action lawsuit by numerous small business owners including veterinarians, dentists, and home repair businesses, who alleged that Yelp was involved in a “civil extortion” scheme by demanding advertising dollars and, if denied, by either manipulating negative reviews or posting “fake” negative reviews of the business. The plaintiffs brought causes of action based upon the California Unfair Competition Law, among other claims. The U.S. District Court for Northern California disposed of the case by way of a Motion to Dismiss and this decision was upheld on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In essence, the court held that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that Yelp! “manipulation of online reviews” (assuming they occurred) was sufficient to sustain a claim of “economic fear” to support the civil extortion claims. The court held that such claims under both California and Federal Law, required a showing of, “a pre-existing right to be free from the threatened harm” and “no legal right to demand payment for goods or services rendered.” In addition, the Court of Appeal held that the plaintiff’s had not stated sufficient facts in their complaint to support their claim that Yelp had authored negative reviews of their businesses.
Takeaways from The Levitt v. Yelp! Decision for Small Business Owners:
Yelp’s own policies certainly indicate that they have an algorithm which provides some preference to certain “reviewers” of any particular listing. (See Youtube video regarding Yelp Reviews – click here). According to their information, whether a review shows up at all or is removed depends upon a lot of factors which go into a type of “quality score” for the reviewer. This may include how active the “reviewer” has been in providing information about other local businesses, the credibility of the review content and other components. Because Yelp! is a private company that has the right to charge for advertising, it can set it’s own policies in this regard according to the Levitt decision.
Yelp is a powerful yet far from exclusive online directory. It can assist a law firm in their online visibility in both local and organic search, in my opinion. Negative reviews on Yelp are probably inevitable unless you have a business that has managed to “please all of the people all of the time.” I think this case demonstrates that, from a legal standpoint, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to “manage” or “eliminate” these negative business reviews by “shooting the messenger”. We live in a digital age where there will no doubt be more and more information available to the consumer about our businesses. My philosophy has always been to embrace my online presence, try to attract and promote as much positive information about my law practice as humanly possible and, let the chips fall where they may from there. The best thing to do to “combat” negative reviews is to elicit as many positive reviews as possible for your business. I think the average consumer is smart enough to know that not every business will have all positive reviews but, if you have many positive reviews, this will outweigh the occasional negativity. I still believe that Yelp is a powerful tool for marketing a law firm and should definitely be utilized by attorneys to promote their practices. Bolstering the listing with good, quality descriptions, photos and videos is another way to provide as much positive information about your firm as possible. Asking prior clients who were satisfied with your work to provide a Yelp review is also a great idea. If you get that negative review, you also have the opportunity as the business owner to provide a “reply”. I would not use this to “lambast” the reviewer, however, but, rather explain in as objective a manner as possible, why you disagree with the comments made about your business.
Steven M. Sweat, Esq. is a partner with the Los Angeles based firm of Glotzer & Sweat, LLP and a proud member of the Circle of Legal Trust, an online organization dedicated to assisting lawyers with the ethical and effective promotion of their law practices on the world wide web.