Using Yelp! As a Form of Alternative Dispute Resolution?

legal marketing, social mediaYelp! Yelp! Yelp! What a nightmare. I seriously doubt the company can last with what many users believe is its unfair system that forces consumers and businesses to be regular Yelpers or likely have their reviews buried.
What we do see is that business owners are seeing their Google Local and Yahoo! Local results fall in favor of businesses that figured out how to seemingly manipulate the Yelp! algo.

Get Clients from Yelp!?

The only viable way to do that we have found is to try and only get clients from Yelp! And that is the whole idea, right? Spend tons of money advertising on Yelp! and you get Yelpers who are already active users. Some of these people are called “Elite” Yelpers. But business owners and their spouses are not allowed to be Elite Yelpers, so don’t even waste your time if that is the case. But that is a discussion for another time.  So with that intro out of the way, what about Joe Public?

Can You Use Yelp! To Your Advantage as a Consumer and Avoid Lawsuits?

  • The Set Up

First, you need to understand the basic set up in using Yelp!, or you are really wasting your time. Even lawyers like me want to avoid Court. It is a terrible waste of time in many many cases. It also uses public resources we simply do not have, at least in California. Of course, as discussed above, using Yelp! to avoid lawsuits comes at a cost. You must have a Yelp! account, you also probably can’t share the same IP address and computer as a business owner (Do you Yelp! from work, a Starbucks Coffee where an owner has also logged in to claim their business on Yelp!, etc.?)

If you don’t have a “clean” IP and account history, so to speak, it is highly unlikely your reviews will even stay live based upon the reports I have heard. Almost all the reviews for the law firm I work for are filtered even though they are legit (see here.) . But wait, you say, “when I am logged in, I can see all my reviews.” Ok fine, now copy and paste the URL of the page you are on and log out and then paste it into your browser. 9 times out of 10 this is what I see, or a reasonable facsimile:

22 other reviews that are not currently Recommended

the above example, you see the reviews from my clients that are not recommended. As you can see, presently, Ehline Law Firm PC has 7 live reviews and 22 reviews that are NOT RECOMMENDED. Not recommended by Yelp! that’s who. So I called a Yelp! rep and the rep said:

“those reviews are too close in time, so they must be fake according to our algo,” or words to that effect. Seriously? So I explained that we recently had done some charities, outreach and email campaigns to: “check us out on Yelp!,” just like we thought Yelp! wanted. The response, classic.

“Just add our badge to your site and don’t ask people to check you out anymore.”

Seriously? Of course, an advertising rep will “contact you shortly.” In other words, drive traffic and PageRank to Yelp! and maybe a few of your reviews will go live if all the other secret sauce factors are present. OR just spend a ton of money on Yelp! ads, and we will send you Elite Yelpers as clients, and their reviews will go and stay live?

If not, we have a deal with Yahoo!, and good luck seeing your results for local search display there anytime soon since they are now driven by Yelp!

Well, at least I have another reason not to use Yahoo! anymore. Ok ok, have you made it through the minefield of factors above as a CONSUMER? Or do you want justice on Yelp!?  Well, if you are an active Yelper you know hat I mean.

And no, don’t think you can get elite Yelper status and make tons of money. If you get caught selling reviews, you are toast, and so are your reviews. I personally suspect that many of the elite Yelpers do profit handsomely.

I would too if I had an algorithm that basically made it impossible to rank on my site unless everyone was paying me, or increasing my click through rates. I mean, its no wonder that brick and mortar locations have been blown out in favor of Yelp! Google and Yahoo! favor sites that get a lot of traffic, right?

If You Can’t Beat Em Join Em?

Many law firms are using Yelp! paid search now. But the stories I am hearing are that when the ads stop running, reviews start to disappear. Am I sure it is just a coincidence, right? I mean, Yelp! has been sued many times, and courts have thrown out the cases, right? So if you are bold enough and rich enough to advertise on Yelp! maybe? Maybe then you will be at an advantage, maybe not. Some say you lose it all unless you keep paying for advertising.

What About Consumers – How Can they Benefit from Yelp! and Avoid Court?

Ok, now that you see the roadblocks preventing success for a business owner not willing to pay Yelp! money, you can see that it may not be worth it for you to bother with Yelp! as a business. Espresso Translations provide legal transcriptions for fast-growing businesses and they can be a better option if you want to avoid any major legal problems for your business.

But I am going to include a personal consumer experience I had with South Bay BMW, who our law firm had leased a car from, in order to show you how we were able to recover $1,000.00 instead of going to small claims court. The screenshot below has the history of our interactions with BMW Financial and the Dealership itself.

The Negative One Star Yelp! Review of South Bay BMW

Consumer Review on Yelp!

Lucky for me, my negative review went live long enough for the South Bay BMW reputation management person to reach out to me. Unfortunately for South Bay BMW, the review was not buried by Yelp! until after the problem was resolved. Here is the link to the actual page to South Bay BMW on Yelp!

As you can see, my review is now buried. So because of Yelp! deciding it was either fake or offered no value, it was sent to cyberspace. Obviously, whatever the reason, my suspicion is if BMW had seen the review was buried under the NOT Recommended Reviews section, I would not have resolved this.

Why do I say that?

Simple, I have left many messages with BMW and had many phone calls and basically was BLOWN OFF. It was not until I publicly stated my concerns that the following events took place.

You can read Brodkin’s response on Yelp! Oh wait, the review was buried by Yelp! so maybe not.

But go ahead and see if you can find it here:

643 other reviews that are not currently recommended

Of course Yelp! says that something like 75% of reviews are recommended right? Let’s see if that is true for BMW. Do the math.  403 reviews are recommended and 643 reviews are not.

Maybe Yelp! meant that 25% to 35% are recommended. And maybe 75% or so are not? I can’t figure it out. Can you?

Does your head hurt yet? Mine does.

Anyways, you can see the frustration that has prevented MANY other lawyers and me I know from sending Yelp! one dime as a business owner. Even as a consumer, it appears that Yelp! is biased against business owners who are ALSO consumers.

Noteworthy here is they say there is a potential conflict of interest in letting the business class with a Yelp listing becoming “Elite Yelpers.” I have had shouting matches with Yelp! salespeople over this. And they promptly point out that back in 2008, I tried to review my own business.

The first problem is, it is not my OWN business. It is a law corporation that I MANAGE, and that has also represented me in the past. But ok, fine, the review is buried.

Now what? Mostly, the second tactic they are using is assuming facts that are simply not true. So they will say the algo assumes it could actually be our firm that did the reviews. Back then, our business, just like many other online and even offline businesses were clueless about Yelp!

In fact, many companies had clients create Yelp! accounts on the spot, such as with Yahoo or Google email. So in our case, as clients with no email accounts picked up their settlement checks, we helped set them up. And they reviewed us right there from our PC and IP address.

And I believe this was a pretty normal practice in years past. Of course, most of our clients have jobs, and barely have time for Facebook, let alone time enough to act as professional Yelpers.

In any event, it is now safe to say that Yelp! has a say in what your business model must be if you want to rank online. Basically, you now must make sure that your clients Yelp! a lot. Otherwise, their review of your business will be buried.

Of course, Yelp! says your clients cannot be your friends or even peers? Well, what they say is basically a vague and ambiguous, subjective test. After all, other Yelp articles suggest you should follow and add people who have or may review you in the future.

So it appears that this gives Yelp! a lot of leeway.

And that can easily lead to them strong-arming consumers. So perhaps you buy advertising in order to make sure Yelp! won’t hurt you. And this could be when a manual reviewer at Yelp! decides that you are in violation.

In fact, Yelp! has even gone so far as suing a lawyer, for inter alia, having friends with other businesses review his law firm. And which Yelp! apparently assumes is a “fake review.”

Was I Able to Use Yelp! To Get Money and Avoid Court – Yes and Here is a Screenshot of the $1,0000.00 Check

Yelp! says you cannot pay to have negative reviews removed. I guess they’re right, since Yelp! went ahead and UN-recommended by a negative review of BMW on their own.

But before that happened, Mark Brodkin and I had come to a resolution. And I first wanted to thank him for seeing what went down here and fixing my problem. So yes, Yelp!, along with some lawyering, got me what I feel is a fair resolution. And no, at no time did Brodkin ever ask me to remove the review, and I have not done so.

  • Legal Disclaimer

With that disclaimer out of the way, here is another one. Don’t think you can just write a negative review and face no consequences. Don’t consider anything I have said as being legal advice, either. IT IS NOT!

You can be sued for defamation, and Yelp! in particular. And probably even BMW would not hesitate to sue you unless what you say is truthful. Heck, even if it is truthful, they could always sue anyways. Why not, maybe they can force you into a lot of legal fees and troubles.

For some, going to Court may be a better option. After all statements made in pleadings are generally not considered defamatory for purposes of litigation. Is this making sense for far? In any event, I have now provided you with a consumer experience.

And this was about a legal issue I had with a company. And technically you could check me out here on Yelp! where you will see 22 reviews buried, and seven are live. Interesting to note, every-time I speak with a Yelp! rep and decide not to buy ads; another positive review seems to disappear. But I am sure that is just a coincidence.

Oh wait, let’s get back on track here. Here is a copy of the check from South Bay BMW.

  • Copy of the $1,000 Check from BMW

Here it is.

Success Using Yelp!

I personally think I got lucky here because I doubt after the review was buried by Yelp! I would have had any negotiating power with BMW, or at least it would have been seriously diminished.

Was it worth my time? Probably not. Did I learn enough about Yelp! To know that Yelp! is skewed towards what helps Yelp! and only Yelp!? I think so.

Could someone come along with a fairer algorithm and take out Yelp! I certainly think so. And if you are a programmer and or developer, I want you to reach out to me asap!

  • Other Closing Thoughts

First of all, this is just my opinion, and it has not been tested in court as far as I know.  But Yelp! decides what reviews, both negative and positive, to recommend. So I believe it may be opening itself to a lawsuit on many levels.

Here, t
he internet law shields a site like Rip Off Report when it republishes something from a third party about you. But when a third party advertiser decides when and if that review is “Recommended,” could a Yelp! type company loses the shield?

Could Yelp! Be a Party to the Review and Have Liability?

Well, could it be a party to the review? So what about if Yelp edited the bad review about you, or skewed it one way or another? Are there any lawyers who agree that recommending something false or defamatory could be a bad act?

I am going to reach out to Yelp! and I invite Yelp! to respond to my invitation and will gladly print their point of view.

The bottom line, many consumers and business owners are fed up with Yelp! and believe it is unfair.

You, as the consumer, must ultimately decide if you think the system is fair. One thing is certain, a single-use account, will often see reviews go “poof.”

So as a reviewer it really even worth the time?

Please comment and chime in. I want to hear about your Yelp! successes or failures. Let’s attempt to unravel the positives and negatives of Yelp!

Rest assured, Circle of Legal Trust does not sell advertising and is a noncommercial, informational organization of attorneys who help each other and consumers. The goal is a safer, fairer playing field for all comers.

How Voice Search May Change Local Attorney SEO


Chris Dreyer, President and Founder of Rankings.ioThe author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Cirlce of Legal Trust.

Speech recognition technology on machines has always left something to be desired. Leading-edge platforms like Siri still had bugs to be worked out as recently as 2013[1]. Today a new breed of software and digital assistants are telling a different story.  In 2016 there has been an explosion of voice searches that are accounting for a huge portion of all online searches made by consumers. Does this mean lawyers need to have a voice optimized search strategy?

The Explosion in Voice Searches

Search Engine Land noted earlier this year[2] that a disruption in search was coming with increased accuracy of voice recognition software and the rise of virtual assistants. So this would be things like Amazon’s Echo, Microsoft’s Cortana and the anticipated Google Home[3].  The 2016 Internet Trends report[4] also hints at the impacts that voice search is having on the industry. (many of the slides were devoted to data points on voice search).

Since around 2010, queries that are related to voice commands for search have been steadily increasing[5] with a spike over the past couple of years.  Google Trends is a good way to see how queries that imply a voice command have been increasing.  For example check out the explosion in the activation phrase “ok Google” since 2010.

Reasons for the Increase?

Google was already making waves with conversational search back in 2013[6].  So they were able to achieve a level of interaction with their search engine. And it was a level no one had ever achieved before. Most interesting, people could carry on a conversation without constantly reminding the algorithm of what they were referencing.

For example, you could ask Google, “where is Madrid?” And then you follow up with “what are some things to do there?” You can do this now without having to remind the machine you meant Madrid.

And this is just one example of why voice search has exploded in recent years.  The accuracy with which software captures what we say and respond accordingly has improved to around the 95% mark.

Where voice recognition software was once clunky and hard to use, it can now easily understand full sentences. And it returns relevant information quickly, all within the context of an ongoing conversation.

Also, these popular and high-quality digital personal assistants account for an increased volume of voice search traffic. Echo, Cortana, Siri, and Google Home are all able to search the web-based on spoken user questions.

What are the Top Reasons People Use Hands-Free?

Among the top reasons people use hands-free and home-based digital assistant software are that they can get faster results. And they are helpful when their hands are full.

Should Lawyers Be Changing their SEO Strategy?

According to companies like Victorious, people use voice search differently than they do a traditional search box.  When a query is spoken instead of typed, it tends to be longer, less literal and more conversational .  The more that users discover, the more a device accurately captures speech. And that means it becomes a more conversational query.

There could be a natural progression toward action-based queries in local search. Right now, people interact with a search box to look up lawyers. And Google’s algorithms show them local providers based on location. Also, it learns as consumers sift through websites. So when you look at reviews and other information to formulate your decision.  With voice search, much of that may be cut out of the picture.

Instead of saying “find lawyers near me” a consumer might say “schedule an appointment with the highest rated attorney in [city name]”.  In other words, the current mainstay of choosing from many choices in a SERP may get thrown out the window with voice searches.

An important consideration is where these virtual assistants (whether mobile or in-home) get their data.  This could be one area where attorneys can focus their optimization efforts related to voice search.  For example Echo and Apple Maps (which is integrated with Siri)[7]. Both get their data from Yelp.  So Google will most likely draw from its own massive search database and Microsoft’s Cortana from Bing[8].

Not only will these personal assistants draw data from the internet but also apps on consumer’s devices.  This re-emphasizes the importance of reviews and optimizing sites with profile scores such as AVVO.

Dispersing Content:

Attorneys should also continue dispersing consistent information into citation-based websites[9] and directories all over the internet (as long as they are reputable). This data is what is used for location centroid calculations.

In Conclusion

The rapid increase in voice search volume is a natural progression with all things tech that we use.  Humans love productivity and convenience, and even though typing into a phone is not that hard, speaking makes it that much easier.  Google and other search providers are moving toward a more personalized and useful experience for their users.










Yelp! Can Legally Alter Reviews If You Won’t Pay Them?

To Yelp! or not to Yelp! that is the question. And it reverberates with which many struggling law firms. We fear if we stop the paid ads, Yelp! will screw up our reviews and make us look bad. Courts appear to believe Yelp! can do what would amount to extortion if the internet wasn’t the forum used.

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 what green light courts have given Yelp! Can they basically do whatever they want with your reviews given by you to others? Can they ethically bury the legitimate 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’s 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 Yelp penalized them.

The lawsuit alleged the penalty was for not purchasing advertising on the site. And the suit listed evidence such as watching nine 5 star reviews for their business disappear, but once they agreed to buy 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.

So Yelp!, for its part in the legal actions, issued a statement on their blog that was self-righteous looking at it from some user’s views. Also, the statement says how happy they are the court reached the right decision. Yelp! claims the plaintiffs and their attorneys attempted to disparage Yelp! to detract from their negative reviews.

Yelp!’s Shareholders Have Sued Yelp!?

But Yelp! hasn’t seen the last of their problems. With another lawsuit recently filed, maybe some fairness will be granted. Alarmingly, this is a shareholder’s lawsuit. And this suit claims the company misled shareholders. The lawsuit says they were dishonest as to the true nature of their algorithm, manipulative reviews and ratings. Of particular interest, the lawsuit cites the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as a source of consumer complaints about Yelp!

Remarkably, the FTC has received over 2,000 complaints involving Yelp! And some allege extortion. Another lawsuit against Yelp for false advertising over claiming it has “the most trusted reviews.” The bottom line is that many people with businesses are scared of Yelp!, and rightly so.

So far, the arguments I have had with their reps make me scared. And the court opinions shed light on the fact that judges must not be getting many bad reviews on Yelp! Also, no matter what, a few negative reviews, especially if they are being featured, is cause for business concern.

Most of all, whether Yelp! is manipulating its algorithm to harm non paying customers is not the issue presented today for our discussion. The issue is that this behavior has now greenlit by some courts. So I, for one, am praying that some other medium will replace Google and Yelp! Noteworthy here, they have too much power over local ranking signals.

Also, we need something more neutral like a trustworthy Net Promoter Score (NPS) system. Last, sites like Yelp! should not be the gold standard. Most of all, the Yelp! model allows too much room to harm and promote based upon money.

The New “Yelp!” Law

Personal Injury, Online MagazinesAs a California attorney and even as a layperson, I know that the Golden State sets the trend. After all, when it comes to draconian regulations, many other states, or even the feds will soon follow in lockstep. Despite federal laws making it easy to defame people online, California has said: “hold on a minute.”

But a little background is in order here. We all know the influence and prevalence of social media in our modern lives. Every day, people who use the internet a lot, are even more influenced by social media. And the internet is directly  our lifestyles, buying patterns, fashions, and choices, etc.

At the same time, we feel freer than ever on the internet when it comes to expressing ourselves and trash-talking. We can talk about people, companies and things the way we want on the internet. Social networking platforms, blogs, forums, reviewing websites, etc. Most of all, these all remain places where we can easily share our thoughts.

Plus we interact with people. We can tell people that lawyers are scumbags. And they can even make up stuff from a false account and put us attorneys out of practice if they really trash us well. However, not every law firm or attorney has this reputation. Some like the DUI lawyers in Los Angeles area, have great word for their work and the expertise they hold.

How Powerful Have Online Reviews Become?

As discussed with this drowsy driving accident lawyer, while posting our thoughts on various things we have reached a point as consumers. Yes, it is true, we can make a business popular or bankrupt with our reviews. Many online reviews left by consumers on reviewing websites have turned into legal trials.

What consumers said about a particular product or service of a company sounded so offending to reviewed companies they sought legal help. Next, they went ahead and sued the consumers. After all, it seemed the only way for them to get justice.

A Recent Example Of Litigation Due To Online Review

A homeowner in Fairfax County, Virginia, was sued by her contractor, who was supposed to make improvements to her newly purchased home. The consumer had posted a negative review of the contractor’s work.

So the consumer gave only 1 star to express her dissatisfaction with the services she had received. Also, the homeowner, named Jane Perez, claimed that some expensive jewelry items showed up missing after the contractor left the house.

Christopher Dietz, the contractor, filed the case against her. And it was an unnecessary defamation lawsuit for defaming his business. Noteworthy here, he sued for the amount of $750,000.

The case finally went to court. But the court’s decision was split. So here, no party was granted any compensation. However, the contractor had to pay for the litigation costs. Plus, he had to pay several attorneys to fight his case. In addition to that, he lost a lot of money because of the alleged consumer defamation.

According to the contractor and the details provided by work injury attorney in San Antonio Law Offices of Ronald A. Ramos, P.C., he had lost nearly $500,000 in business. And all of this was because of the consumer’s defamatory review. The consumer, Jane Perez, was lucky in this particular scenario. Noteworthy here, an attorney represented her on a pro bono basis.

Companies Trying To Fight Back

After many scenarios that emerged similar to the one mentioned above, companies thought of an ingenious method of fighting back. Many online companies and contractors that provide certain services and products started to throw in a non-disparagement clause in their policies and customer contracts.

This particular clause prohibited consumers from defaming the companies in their online reviews and through other methods. In short, this clause prevented consumers from expressing their feelings about a particular service or product. A case happened where a couple violated such a clause.

A famous online retail store troubled a couple because they had posted an online review that was defaming for the business. The retailer had the non-disparagement clause added to its policies. And after the couple had posted the negative online review, the retailer demanded $3,500 from the couple.

The retailer went so far as to report the non-payment of this money as debt. And he caused a big dent on the credit score of the consumers.But this caused trouble for the couple. So they sued the retailer and won. And they received compensation of $300,000 for the damages.

The First Amendment Rights

The first amendment in the constitution of the United States prohibits the making of any law that bars the people of the US from having the right of free speech. In simple words, the public is free to speak its mind. And creating a law or condition that represses the people from having the freedom of speech is not allowed.

Actions Taken By The State Of California

Based on the above events, and learning of the frequency of such cases, California passed a new consumer protection law. Noteworthy here, this law protects your existing First Amendment Rights from shady merchants and companies.

And this is because rights were being trampled upon by online businesses. These unsavory people did this by adding a non-disparagement clause into their online policies and contracts.

According to this law, companies cannot force their consumers to sign any contracts that deprive consumers of their first amendment rights. And this law was signed by the governor. And it’s already in effect as of January 01, 2015. Currently, the law is Yelp! Law.

Merchants, service providers, contractors, retailers, etc. who’d violate this law will have to pay $2500 for the first violation. For the next violations, they have to pay $5000. The fines can be as big as $10,000 if the violation is deemed deliberate or reckless.

What To Learn From This?

Mostly, online retail stores and other businesses must make sure to stay in compliance with the latest changes in the laws. So that way, they don’t have policies in conflict with existing law.

As for consumers, two important things present themselves from which to learn.

  • Make sure you review in detail your homeowners’ policy. Also, look at any other type of insurance. Many insurance providers cover insured people for cases where a company sues the consumer for libel and defamation.
  • Make sure you write your reviews honestly. Don’t add in details or occurrences that haven’t happened. Honestly, this could get you in trouble if the company sues you for defamation.

With the right insurance policy, you can rest assured you can face such a situation. So now perhaps you won’t have to pay the legal fees from your pocket. When it comes to business owners, they should stay updated with the latest laws. After all, they say, “care is better than cure.”

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