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.

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