It has become commonplace for consumers to utilize social media and customer review websites such as Facebook, Angie’s List, and Yelp, to rate businesses. These ratings and reviews have become critical to any business that offers its products or services to the public. Most of us depend on these websites when making decisions regarding which hotel to stay in, which daycare to send our children to, or where to eat out, among a variety of other consumer decisions.
Generally, the public has come to trust these sites as sources of impartial accounts of the general public’s experience with a particular business. Usually, the reviews posted on these sites diligently serve their purpose. Unfortunately, however, the reviews are not always honest or fair, and can lead damage being inflicted on an underserving business. Unsatisfied customers or even unethical competitors can use the sites to post false or misleading reviews.
It should come as no surprise that reviews and “star” ratings have a dramatic impact on the ultimate success or failure of a business. With this in mind, it is important that business owners understand the rights they have (and don’t have) when it comes to dealing with misleading, false, or even defamatory online reviews.
A consumer’s right to post an online review, regardless of the truth of that particular review, has been generally protected by Courts, especially if the review comes in the form of an opinion. With that said, a false statement of fact in a review can lead to a lawsuit for libel, although Courts often have a very broad view of what constitutes an opinion and what constitutes a statement of fact.
For example, TripAdvisor called a hotel in Tennessee the “Dirtiest Hotel in America”, a title that TripAdvisor based on poor reviews. The Court dismissed the libel case that ultimately arose, holding that the term “dirtiest” was not defamatory.
In another case, a former member of an Oregon church posted comments online calling the church “creepy”. The court likewise dismissed this case, and deemed the comments protected by the 1st Amendment.
One might wonder why the review sites aren’t held liable when a consumer posts a defamatory review on their website. As it turns out, federal law provides an incentive for these websites not to monitor or verify the content of reviews. Specifically, the Communications and Decency Act actually prevents these sites from being liable for a consumer’s defamatory post, so long as they don’t actively control the posts. In fact, by monitoring and attempting to verify posts, these websites actually expose themselves to potential liability.
So, What Can You Do As a Business to Protect Your Reputation?
So, what is a business to do? By being proactive on both a legal and customer service level, businesses can reduce the number of negative reviews and mitigate the damage of negative reviews that do make their way to the internet.
Non-Disparagement Provision. It is always a good idea for a business to have well drafted contracts with its customers. In today’s world, a well-drafted customer contract should include a strong non-disparagement provision. This would turn any negative statements made by the customer about the business into a breach of the contract, thus providing a cause of action to the business.
Recognize and Resolve. Recognizing that a customer has had a negative experience, or perceives your business to have done a less than stellar job, can go a long way to preventing complaints and negative posts. If possible, it is advisable to work with the customer to resolve their issue. If the issue can’t be resolved, at least there has been a good faith attempt made to deal with the problem. It is often how a business handles a mistake, and not the mistake itself, that leaves a lasting memory in the customer’s mind.
Report False and Defamatory Reviews. As discussed, above, it may be difficult to get false reviews taken down, but it is still worth the effort. Although review websites do not want to appear to be overly controlling of the content that is posted by consumers, they do generally have a complaint procedure set up to deal with inappropriate reviews. Although, a business may be ultimately unsuccessful in attempting to have a negative review removed, it is still worth the effort.
Finally, To Conclude…
In order to effectively battle unjustified reviews, it is vital that a business be aware of what is being said about it online. In that connection, business leaders should be familiar with review websites and should regularly examine those sites for reviews about their business. A fast, sincere, and good faith response is sometimes the best weapon against negative, false, or defamatory reviews.
No business wants negative ratings or reviews. In order to defend against them, it’s extremely important to be proactive both in responding to the reviews and, at times, addressing what might be a valid customer critique. The suggestions above represent only a few methods for protecting your company’s reputation online. Ultimately, the focus should be on making your business stronger and more capable of dealing with the myriad of challenges it faces on a daily basis.
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