Business Courts Negative Reviews As Middle Finger To Yelp

Chris CrumBusiness

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You've heard the claims before. If reader comments are any indication, many of you have even lived them. They've never been proven, but time and time again, small businesses accuse Yelp of "extorting" them by holding positive reviews hostage until they pay for advertising.

Do you believe Yelp is really guilty of this practice, or is it just a myth? Tell us what you think.

Writing this story couldn't feel much more like beating a dead horse, because it never really gets anywhere, but the claims just don't stop. Yelp denies them, and businesses call B.S. It's a never-ending cycle without a resolution in sight.

So why are we talking about it this time? A restaurant in Richmond, Califonria - Botto Italian Bistro - has taken matters into its own hands. Rather than just complaining about this alleged "extortion," they launched a campaign to get negative reviews, which has led to increased attention and business for the restaurant, while also shining a spotlight on such claims against Yelp.

According to The Associated Press, the restaurant launched the campaign after getting "several aggressive sales calls from Yelp that they perceived to be veiled threats." It's the same basic plot that businesses have been talking about for a long time now.

According to that report, business has benefited from the campaign, and the restaurant says it's the best marketing idea it's had, adding a big middle finger in the form of a "Thanks, Yelp!"

Last month, Yelp emerged victorious from a lawsuit dealing with extortion claims, though the reason the company won did little to quell existing suspicions. Yelp certainly took the opportunity to gloat about its victory on its blog, saying:

For years, fringe commentators have accused Yelp of altering business ratings for money. Yelp has never done this and individuals making such claims are either misinformed, or more typically, have an axe to grind––whether businesses upset that Yelp will not remove reviews they don’t like, or unscrupulous internet marketing “experts” trying to make a buck off of honest business owners with dubious reputation management schemes.

In 2010, a few businesses took these conspiracy theories to court and filed several class actions against Yelp — all of which were dismissed in Federal court. Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of these cases with their ruling in Levitt v. Yelp. Examining the businesses’ best facts after several attempts, the court found no extortion or any other wrongdoing by Yelp. The Court also dismissed as implausible some plaintiffs’ claims that Yelp authored negative reviews about them as part of a plot to obtain ad dollars. Instead, the Court noted that the facts only showed that the reviews were likely from actual customers, noting that “Yelp is a forum for consumers to review businesses, and huge numbers of consumers do just that.”

We are obviously happy that the Court reached the right result, and saw through these thin attempts by a few businesses and their lawyers to disparage Yelp and draw attention away from their own occasional negative review. We at Yelp are moving on, and focusing on our core mission––connecting people with great local businesses.

Meanwhile, various reports pointed out that the reason for the case's dismissal didn't really prove that Yelp wasn't engaging in the things it was being accused of.

As Nathaniel Mott of PandoDaily put it at the time, "The court’s decision was based less on Yelp’s innocence in the common sense of the word and more on the fact that these businesses never had a ‘right’ to positive reviews in the first place. Yelp isn’t necessarily innocent — it’s just not guilty in a way the appeals court cares about.”

As Courthouse News Service described the outcome of the case, "Yelp’s alleged conduct cannot be called extortion because its 'manipulation of user reviews, assuming it occurred, was not wrongful use of economic fear, and, second, … business owners pled insufficient facts to make out a plausible claim that Yelp authored negative reviews of their businesses,' the three-judge panel found."

While it was certainly a legal victory for Yelp, it didn't go very far in improving the company's reputation or easing accusations and suspicions.

Yelp is also dealing with a class-action suit filed by shareholders who alleged the company sold over $81 million in stock while misleading them about the legitimacy of reviews.

Botto Italian Bistro's campaign probably isn't doing a lot to help Yelp's reviews look more legitimate. The campaign is alluded to quite a bit throughout the reviews currently residing on the restaurant's Yelp page. The one that's showing at the top as of the time of this writing even claims to have written an actual legit review only to have it deleted by Yelp. It says:

Now that the restaurant has gained some attention from its campaign, it will be interesting to see if other businesses follow suit. It doesn't make a business look very good online for those unaware of the situation, but if enough others started doing it too, it could be even worse for Yelp's own reputation, and it seems like that would please quite a few disgruntled businesses.

Something tells me another legal battle isn't too far off.

Was this a smart move from the restaurant, or is it just going to negatively impact it in the long run? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image via Yelp

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.