To Yelp! or not to Yelp! that is the question many a law firm struggles with. We fear if we stop the ads that Yelp! will screw up our reviews and make us look bad. Courts appear to believe Yelp! can do what would amount to extortion if not but for the internet being the forum. When we speak to Yelp! reps they say that Yelp! never favors advertisers over non advertisers, and there is nothing to fear. Then we hear other stories of lawyers upset at Yelp! being revenge sued by Yelp! for expressing their feelings about Yelp! So let’s go with what we do know. Let’s see the green light courts have given Yelp! to basically do whatever it wants with your personal reviews and reviews of others about your business or law firm.
Did the 9th Circuit Just Give Yelp! a Green Light To “Hard Bargain” Extort Businesses?
Yelp! has had challenges in the idea with small businesses they can imply a pay-to-play structure with positive and negative reviews and how they are displayed on their site. The 9th Circuit Court three judge panel has agreed with Yelp by ruling that even if the plaintiffs would be able to provide adequate proof of Yelp removing or replacing positive reviews and manipulating star ratings for paid ads. The panel in the ruling said Yelp would not have been doing anything illegal.
This ruling may help to show what Yelp has as a business platform and what rights businesses have involving user reviews. The ruling according to the SFgate newspaper had the ruling at 3-0, with Judge Marsha Berzzon stating in the ruling
“As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the (alleged) threat of economic harm … is, at most, hard bargaining.”
Judge Berzon went on to say that threatening economic harm by extortion is “exceedingly narrow concept.” This isn’t the first court ruling, one earlier was in a lower court that dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by business owners claiming in the suit they were penalized by Yelp. The lawsuit alleged the penalty was for not purchasing advertising on the site and listed evidence such as watching nine 5 star reviews for their business disappear, but once they agreed to purchase ads the reviews reappeared. One business in the class action lawsuit the Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital of Santa Barbara claimed a sales rep offered to hide negative reviews if they paid.
With the court ruling it is difficult to say what is legal and what isn’t by going on the class action dismissal and then the higher court three panel ruling. But certainly some businesses that have used Yelp feel they have been wronged. Yelp for its part in the legal actions issued a statement on their blog that was self-righteous looking at it from some users views. The statement says how happy they are the court reached the right decision and those who brought the suit and their attorneys attempted to disparage Yelp in order to detract from their own negative reviews.
Yelp hasn’t seen the last of their problems with another lawsuit recently filed, which is a shareholder’s lawsuit claiming the company has mislead shareholders with their algorithm talk about manipulative reviews and ratings. The lawsuit cites the Federal Trade Commission has received over 2,000 complaints involving Yelp and the alleged extortion. Another lawsuit has been filed against Yelp for false advertising for the company claiming it has “the most trusted reviews.” The bottom line is that people with businesses are scared of Yelp! and rightly so. The arguments I have had with their reps makes me scared, and the court opinions shed light on the fact that judges must not be getting many bad reviews on Yelp! I mean, a few negative reviews, especially if they are being featured because you refused to pay Yelp!, is cause for concern. Whether it is true Yelp! is doing it or not is not the issue. The issue is that they are now greenlit by the courts to do just that. I for one am praying that Google will replace Yelp! reviews as a local ranking signal with the more trustworthy Net Promoter Score (NPS) system mentioned here.
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