Here’s another one from the “fake testimonials” file — but this time, the tables are turned. Instead of a business trying to sue Yelp over a scathing review, Yelp is suing a law firm for allegedly posting fake – yet glowing – reviews under their own entry.
Yes, my friend, you read that correctly: Yelp is now on the hunt for businesses that are padding their pages with adulatory, although ultimately phony, testimonials. (Maybe Yelp is tired of angry business owners looking to pick a fight over user reviews?)
The timing of this case is almost prescient, as New York State recently passed a ground-breaking law which categorizes faux-laudatory reviews – especially ones you and your employees write yourselves – as false advertising, and therefore illegal.
Law firm Being Sued by Yelp for Fake, Positive Online Reviews
This Yelp v. Vendor defamation fracas began when someone left a poor review on McMillan’s Yelp page. After the lone less-than-flattering comment appeared, Yelp staffers noticed a flood of A+ praise on McMillan’s profile. Suspicion led to an internal investigation at Yelp, and in the end, Yelp opted to sue the law firm for breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations and false advertising.
Word on the street is that Yelp believes McMillan is part of a “good testimonial mafia ring” of sorts, wherein participating parties agree to give each other positive online reviews and testimonials despite having never actually used a given service or product. An “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” understanding – which, till now, has always been a standard online marketing tactic.
Why is Yelp Taking The Time To Sue A Law Firm For Defamation?
You may be wondering, “why is Yelp even bothering with this lawsuit!? Shouldn’t they worry about providing a better online experience instead of suing users?” In response to that question, the company’s line seems to be, “bad reviews are bad for both Yelp and consumers.”
But what isn’t being widely highlighted is that this is not McMillan’s and Yelp’s first legal conflict – with each other, no less. Several years ago, McMillan won $2,700 from Yelp. The law firm had initiated a legal action against the online review corporation over language in Yelp’s vendor contract. Ironically, McMillan protested to what they felt amounted to Yelp extorting businesses for good reviews. Though the firm ultimately won money from the consumer-venting pioneers, much to the chagrin of McMillan, the matter was forced into arbitration because of a clause in the Yelp vendor agreement. (Click here to read more about the difficulty of getting an arbitration clause ignored when a legal matter arises.)
Bottom Line: Are fake testimonials Legal?
This lawsuit comes at a time when lawmakers are cracking down on paid-for, fake and defamatory reviews. As stated above, New York State recently passed a law stipulating that self-reviews of a business or product are akin to false advertising and therefore illegal in the Empire State – a law which most website operators will need to follow since the Internet is, essentially, one big state, where the wise follow the strictest laws in the country.
The Time Is Now To Clean Up Your Testimonial/Review Act
The bottom line is simple: if, in the past five years or so, you have bought, bartered or self-produced bogus testimonials for your business, service or product, it’s time to start cleaning up the now-offending material. Delete the reviews you wrote and posted yourself. If you use a marketing firm, get in touch with them, calmly discuss the new crop of fake testimonial laws, and work with them to develop a plan for moving forward.
Want to consult with an online marketing lawyer about your possibly illegal, fake testimonial situation? Get in touch with Aaron Kelly at Kelly Warner Law.