Consider this scenario: A customer has posted a scathing review about your business. It’s scaring off new customers, and makes your business look bad. In fact, it’s had a major impact on your business. Can you sue for it?
The short answer is yes, businesses can sue for negative reviews. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to win.
A New Trend of Negative Reviews in the Courts
We’ve seen a handful of review-related lawsuits pop up in the legal system lately. Is this a growing trend among businesses that are unhappy with their reviews? It seems so.
Businesses are increasingly aware of the impact reviews can have on their bottom line. Recent surveys show that 90% of customers’ buying decisions are influenced by online reviews, and 72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
That means positive reviews are more important than ever — and negative ones can be especially damaging, discouraging customers from patronizing an establishment.
So of course, it makes sense that when faced with such high stakes, businesses will fight back against reviews that they feel are unfair or untrue. And in some cases, they’ll even fight back against reviews that may be true — but they just don’t like them.
Just this week, a hotel filed a $74,500 defamation lawsuit for an anonymous TripAdvisor review. The review claimed that “laundry and housekeeping are either high or drunk” and “breakfast is nasty, the rooms are nasty,” among other scathing observations. The review has since been taken down. The hotel claims that the person who posted the review misrepresented that he or she lives in Prescott, Arizona, and that he or she actually stayed at the hotel during the period described.
This lawsuit follows other notable legal challenges related to reviews, including Kleargear.com’s $3,500 online review fine, a $7,500 defamation suit filed by a wedding venue, and the threat of a libel suit over an Amazon review. A $750,000 lawsuit over a Yelp review has also gone to trial this year.
Silencing Customers Online
As Bill touched on last week, it’s become dangerous to speak your mind online. Do all of these lawsuits mean customers should be afraid to post negative reviews online? After all, an Oregon ruling indicates that business owners can file defamation suits against reviewers, at least in that state. Are you opening yourself up to liability by sharing not-so-flattering details about a business?
What Consumers Should Know About Posting Reviews Online
Though businesses can sue reviewers for defamation, it’s important to understand exactly what that term means. The legal experts at Nolo.com explain that defamation has occurred when there is a statement that is:
While it’s given that online reviews are published and likely to be injurious, the most important caveat for reviewers to note in Nolo’s definition is that the statement must be false. That means for a review lawsuit to be successful, the business must prove that what you said was not true.
Though the threat of lawsuits from businesses looms, reviewers should continue to confidently share their opinions and inform others of how businesses are performing — but only if they’re telling the truth. Adding false information to a review is not only misleading and hurtful, it’s now a legal liability as well.
What Businesses Should Know About Suing Over Reviews
As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to sue your customers, so suing over a negative review should always be considered a last resort. Lawsuits over negative reviews rarely generate positive press, and in fact, they may draw more attention to a negative reputation. A lawsuit could turn one bad review buried on Yelp into an entire first page of Google results devoted to news stories about the case: not a good situation for any business, even if they’re in the right.
Businesses should also be careful not to end up in an anti-SLAPP motion, which shifts the burden of proof on to the plaintiff and can stop a lawsuit in its tracks. If you’re going to sue over a review, make sure it’s worth it: is the review truly false, injurious, and unprivileged? You should be working with a legal team that is experienced in defamation law and can provide helpful counsel for this particular situation.
Though businesses should avoid suing for negative reviews if at all possible, you can take action against reviews that plague your reputation. On some review websites, businesses can flag false reviews for arbitration or verification; if the reviewer can’t prove that what they’ve shared is true, the review may be removed. Note, however, that this approach does not work on Yelp: it is the company’s policy not to arbitrate disputes, and they will only remove a review if it violates their content guidelines, such as the reviewer admitting they only have second-hand knowledge, or using a racial slur.
Another option is contacting reviewers directly. Though you may not have much luck with reviewers who are irate or have never actually utilized your establishment, it’s always best to politely contact reviewers directly before escalating your response. Yelp recommends contacting reviewers with care, responding politely, and asking for a second chance. Often, a simple message of apology and a thanks for the feedback works best.
In addition to managing negative reviews, business owners should actively seek out positive feedback from happy customers. Remember that a single negative review does not have the power to entirely break your business. A particularly scathing review may bring up concerns, but most customers understand that businesses deal with the occasional irate client. Businesses with primarily positive feedback will not be greatly damaged by a few bad reviews. In fact, having one or two bad reviews can make your good ones more credible: customers may be suspicious of a business that seems to only have entirely positive feedback.
Review lawsuits are an interesting trend in reputation management, but one we do not recommend following unless it’s absolutely necessary. Customers should not be afraid to post reviews online — provided they are entirely truthful — and businesses should be careful not to sue customers except in extreme cases of defamation that can not be handled any other way.