Can you trust yelp reviews? Or is the site a pay-for-play cauldron of post manipulation? These are the questions people are considering after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Levitt v. Yelp, Inc.
A case that challenged Yelp’s advertising sales practices, the main question in Levitt was whether or not “gripe sites” can manipulate review algorithms as an advertising sales tool.
Ultimately, the judges ruled that review manipulation, as presented in the suit, is a perfectly legal example of “hard bargaining.” The bench also reasoned that consumer review websites aren’t obligated to display positive posts.
Which raises the question: Can you trust Yelp reviews?
Below, we’ll review the case and explain the judges’ decision in favor of consumer review websites.
First, A Little About The Yelp Review System
Honest users post honest opinions about businesses and services. Then, Yelp displays every review – good or bad. That’s how Yelp works, right?
There’s a little bit more (or less, depending on how you look at it) to Yelp’s functionality than what meets the eye.
How Do Yelp Reviews Get Removed?
The best way to get a negative review removed from Yelp is by convincing the reviewer to delete it. Oftentimes, people post scathing rants in the heat of the moment. If you let a few days pass, and then approach your detractor politely, common ground can sometimes be found. Identify the problem, and, if reasonable, do everything you can to fix it!
Sometimes Yelp removes user reviews that don’t adhere to the site’s terms of service guidelines.
Yelp Filtering Algorithm Removes
All reviews on Yelp’s platform are subject to a filtering algorithm. The system doesn’t permanently delete reviews, but it does “hide” them.
Yelp Review Filtering System Explained
What is the Yelp filtering algorithm? An automated system that controls how reviews appear on the site, Yelp’s formula affects all posts — good and bad. Intriguingly, the algorithm is partially based on a user’s “site clout” (i.e., the more reviews someone posts, the more clout they have).
Yelp executives insist the system is 100% automated. But a band of small business owners believe it’s something more insidious; they think that Yelp manually tweaks the filtering algorithm to negatively target businesses that opt out of Yelp advertising.
Yelp’s Advertising Opportunities
A major component of Levitt v. Yelp is promotion — specifically, whether or not Yelp penalizes businesses for opting out of advertising.
At the time of this writing, Yelp offers advertising costing between $300 and $1200. Benefits include:
- Guaranteed premium placement;
- Ability to pick a positive review that appears front-and-center on your profile page; and
- Ability to add photos to the page.
What The Class Argued Against Yelp: User Review Manipulation & Advertising Extortion
A group of small business professionals joined forces to legally challenge alleged advertising extortion and unfair business competition by Yelp. Class members argued violations of the Hobbs Act and California’s unfair competition law.
What were the main gripes? The class felt that Yelp:
- Extorted advertising money by manipulating profile reviews;
- Purposefully downgraded ratings if a business owner refused to purchase Yelp advertising; and
- Authored fake, negative reviews as a way to get business owners to purchase Yelp advertising.
In the claim, the class members also argued the ethics of Yelp employee reviewers.
Small Business Owners’ Complaints Regarding “Yelp’s Review Manipulation”
Levitt v. Yelp detailed the experiences of several business owners with Yelp profiles. Below are summaries of those stories.
Boris Levitt: Good Yelp Reviews Disappeared; His Rating Dropped a Full “Star”
Boris Levitt long enjoyed a 4.5 Yelp star-rating. Then, one day, out of the blue, several good reviews vanished from his page.
Perplexed, he called Yelp to inquire about the good-review exodus. According to Levitt, a Yelp employee blamed Yelp’s filtering algorithm (described above), and explained that Boris was out of luck since the filtering system is anonymous and automated.
Two months after the initial call, a Yelp advertising sales representative contacted Boris Levitt. After the pitch, Boris said he was happy with his organic ratings on the site, and then opted against a Yelp advertising package. According to Boris, two days later, his rating dropped a whole star, and several more 5-star reviews disappeared from his page.
Cats & Dogs: After Yelp Removed A Bad Review, Another One Appeared In Its Place
One day, Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital called and asked Yelp to remove an old, negative review from its page. Yelp complied with Cats & Dogs’ request because the request squared with guidelines.
A few days later, another bad review appeared on Cats & Dogs’ Yelp page – a review suspiciously similar to the one Yelp had removed.
Soon after the second criticism posted, Cats & Dogs began to field calls from Yelp’s advertising department. And according to the animal hospital, the sales rep “promised to manipulate [Cats & Dogs’] listing page in exchange for … purchasing advertising.” Cats & Dogs contends that the Yelp representative promised to “hide negative reviews or place them lower.”
In the lawsuit, Cats & Dogs also explained that the original bad review, which Yelp removed, reappeared after it opted out of advertising.
Mercurio: Yelp Reviews Didn’t Sync With Customer Records
Named claimant Mercurio’s tale was similar to Boris Levitt’s. But unlike Levitt, Mercurio accused Yelp of being the wizard behind several of his bad reviews.
Mercurio insists that several unflattering rants on his Yelp page don’t sync with customer records. Mercurio also swears that a Yelp representative told him, over the phone, that advertising with Yelp helps ratings.
Interestingly – and perhaps detrimentally — Mercurio never named the customer service rep with whom he spoke.
Dr. Tracey Chan: Felt Pressured To Buy Yelp Advertising To Keep Her Rating
According to dentist Tracey Chan, during a sales pitch, a Yelp representative claimed to wield control over reviews and promised to “hide or bury” bad ones in exchange for an advertising purchase.
Initially, Chan declined. A few days later, nine 5-star reviews disappeared from her Yelp profile. Chan’s overall standing plunged from 5- to 3-stars. According to the dentist, when she called to ask about the sharp and sudden decline, a Yelp employee offered “help” if she invested in site advertising.
Chan said she “feared” Yelp would continue to manipulate her business’ page for the worse if she didn’t pony up for Yelp advertising.
Sponsors and Nonsponsors
The class members described themselves as “nonsponsors” and “sponsors.” Nonsponsors were the business operators who opted not to buy Yelp advertising. Sponsors were the people who – at some point – enrolled in a Yelp advertising program.
Why the Court Sided With Yelp in the Online Consumer Review Class Action Lawsuit
Cats & Dogs: Didn’t Protest The Authenticity Of The First Bad Review
In the claim, Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital cited two reviews – one that Yelp removed at Cats & Dogs’ request, and the second, which appeared soon after Yelp “erased” the first one. In the lawsuit, Cats & Dogs argued that the second review was fake and most likely authored by Yelp. Importantly, in the claim, Cats & Dogs did not dispute the authenticity of the first review.
The Levitt v. Yelp panel concluded that a “real customer” could’ve easily posted the second review. As such, Cats & Dogs didn’t provide enough proof that Yelp egregiously and unfairly manipulated reviews, in an effort to extort money by way of an ineffectual advertising plan.
Dr. Tracey Chan: Didn’t Argue That Yelp Advertising Was A “Valueless Sham”
The judges knocked down Dr. Tracy Chan’s arguments because she failed to link Yelp’s alleged rating-manipulation promise to a forced Yelp advertising contract. Moreover, Chan didn’t claim that Yelp’s advertising opportunities were a “valueless sham” or that she was “already entitled to the advertising privileges [Yelp] induced her to buy.” In other words, Chan didn’t connect her reputational harm to a wrongful act on Yelp’s part.
Interestingly, in the opinion, the judges acquiesce that rating manipulation, as a sales technique, may breach some sort of consumer contract, but this particular argument didn’t cut muster.
Mercurio: “It Could Have Been Anyone!”
Though Mercurio couldn’t match several Yelp reviews to a customer, the judges weren’t convinced that Yelp was the fraudulent author. The bench reasoned that the reviews could’ve been written by “a competitor, or a disgruntled customer hiding behind an alias, or an angry neighbor, just to give a few possibilities.”
Can You Trust Yelp Reviews? Technical Legal Reasons The Judges’ Ruled In Favor of Yelp & (a.k.a., Why Review Manipulation Can Be Perfectly Legal)
At face value, these tales of Yelp review woe seem like rock-solid arguments. But when weighed against applicable laws, each one falls short. Here’s why.
- Review manipulation on Yelp’s part, as described in the cases, doesn’t violate antitrust laws “or otherwise significantly [threaten or harm] competition.”
- Technically, Yelp and SMBs are not in direct competition. And since all successful legal actions must be based on “legislatively declared policies” – and there is no policy about unfair competition between non-competitors – the argument crumbles.
- The bench had to consider “Yelp’s alleged authoring of negative reviews.” The court deemed that the plaintiffs didn’t successfully – nor directly – expose Yelp as the author of the negative, false reviews.
- In response to the extortion claim, the judges reasoned, “unless a person has a pre-existing right to be free of threatened economic harm to induce a person to pay for legitimate services” it’s not extortion. In other words, it’s perfectly legal for Yelp – and other consumer review websites – to control how and when reviews are displayed on their sites. Manipulating them, in it of itself, is not extortion, but instead an example of “hard bargaining.” The judges reiterated this point in the Levitt opinion, explaining, “Extortion requires more than fear.” Additionally, the court ruled: “so long as the alleged extortioner seeks payment for services that have some ‘objective value’,” that party has “a lawful claim to the property obtained.’”
- The Levitt class used the “Hobbs Act,” but the judges rejected the argument because “purely economic threats don’t violate the Hobbs Act.” Under the law, extortion must include “wrongful” use of “force, violence or fear,” and “manipulation of user reviews, assuming it occurred, was not wrongful use of economic fear.”
- “The fear of economic loss plays a role in many business transactions that are entirely legitimate,” explained the Levitt The judges also reinforced that the Hobbs Act can only be successfully argued when there is “the exploitation of the fear of economic loss.” The plaintiffs in this suit failed to prove the “exploitation of the fear.”
Is The Yelp Review Manipulation Legal Battle Over? Maybe Not.
All in all, the Yelp judicial panel sided with the consumer review website. However, at the end of the opinion, it left the door open for another go at this issue. The opinion teased:
“We emphasize that we are not holding that no cause of action exists……The business owners have not alleged a legal theory or plausible facts to support the theories they do argue.”
In other words: we’re not saying that consumer review websites aren’t completely faultless in their aggressive advertising tactics, we’re just saying that the arguments made in this claim weren’t 100% foolproof. It was a noble effort, consider our explanations this go around, tweak the claim, and you’ll probably have it.
Don’t expect this issue to go away. But for now, remember this lawsuit when you’re checking out businesses on Yelp. Is a low-rating truly representative of a business? Or is it the product of Yelp review manipulation?
Speak With A Yelp Defamation Lawyer
Are you dealing with Yelp defamation – or another Internet defamation challenge? An attorney can help remedy the situation, quickly. And it may not be as costly as you imagine.
In the meantime: Should you trust Yelp reviews? It’s up to you. But if you’re a small business owner with a Yelp reputation problem, get in touch. Let us fix the problem.