Negative Online Reviews

Should restaurant owners care about negative online reviews?  A study by Harvard Business School indicated a one-star increase on a Yelp review can boost a business’s revenue by five to nine percent.

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It appears then that low ratings from reviews may do great harm to a restaurant’s profitability. Luckily, websites like Yelp have Content Guidelines and Terms of Service (ToS) forbidding reviewers from writing derogatory remarks or factually inaccurate comments. Yelp’s ToS explicitly state that the website reserves the right to remove any reviews violating Content Guidelines.

In recent times, those reviewed on sites like Yelp have taken action of their own to bring down bad reviews. They have sued reviewers to demand deletion of negative comments and to get compensation for their damaged reputations. These lawsuits have, for the most part, not been successful. In 2014, a jury found for neither party in a defamation lawsuit brought by a contractor, Christopher Dietz, against his former customer whose negative review on Angie’s List allegedly caused Dietz five to ten potential contracts. (Dietz Development LLC v. Jane Perez, case no. 2012-16249, Fairfax County Circuit Court, Virginia.) Also in 2014, a divorce lawyer sued Avvo, a website for posting reviews of attorneys, to release the identity of an anonymous poster; Avvo won the case due to the lawyer’s failure to show sufficient circumstances to support a factual basis for her defamation claim. (Thomson v. Doe, 356 P.3d 727, 189 Wash. App. 45 (Ct. App. 2015).) In 2011, Benihana sued a Kuwaiti food blogger for writing a negative review of the restaurant, and the food blogger ultimately prevailed at trial, but for unstated reasons.

Due to First Amendment protections of individuals’ opinions, lawsuits seeking to take down negative reviews can be difficult to win. The typical suit’s cause of action is defamation, for which the plaintiff must show, among other things, that the defendant posted a defamatory statement and the statement ruined the plaintiff’s reputation. Not all offensive and unpleasant statements are defamatory. To be defamatory in the legal sense, the statement must be known by the poster to be factually inaccurate. For instance, the court in Dietz determined his ex-customer defamed him by lying about his stealing her jewelry (but Dietz did not win any damages because he had written lies about the customer too). The judge warned the customer, “If you want to chill free speech, keep it up, because eventually one of these companies is going to win big.” As social media becomes ever more popular, there could very well be a case in the future that proves the judge’s remarks true.

Until then, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Unhappy with Yelp’s practices, Botto Bistro in Richmond, CA asked customers to post one-star Yelp reviews just to spite the website. Ironically, the restaurant’s business became better than ever.