For small businesses, the Yelp reviewer is either a blessing or a curse. Amateur online critics tend to write about either great or terrible experiences and leave reviews full of gory details or glowing praise. But some businesses say that not everybody on Yelp is a genuine customer. In fact, a recent lawsuit is demanding that anonymous reviewers show their faces, and prove that they did indeed frequent the business they reviewed.
Angus Loten at the Wall Street Journal outlines the plight of Joe Hadeed, a carpet cleaner who claims that several negative reviews of his carpet cleaning service came from people with malicious intent, and who may not have ever even used his business. Whether they are posted by competitors, or someone else, Hadeed says that the negative reviews did their job and harmed his business. So he sued the seven reviewers he argues are fraudulent, asking Yelp to reveal their true identities, and for the reviewers to prove that they used his business in the first place. He’s won twice, but Yelp continues to appeal, arguing that the reviews are protected under the First Amendment.
Loten says that other business owners are watching Hadeed’s fight closely.
"I feel helpless," says 63-year-old Judy Scales, who co-owns Alloy Wheel Repair Specialists of Northern Virginia with her husband. In May, a customer alerted her to a Yelp review that called her business a "shady hack-job repair service." She says the unnamed writer claimed the work was done on a wheel as it remained on the car, a practice the nine-year-old business doesn't do.
When she asked the site to remove the comments, she said a Yelp official told her the post offered a legitimate opinion and wouldn't be changed.
Yelp is the big worry for business owners, as it's the largest reviewing site of its kind in the United States, with over 120 million visits every month and 50 million reviews. Most people do use their real names, but others remain anonymous. The validity of reviews on Yelp has been questioned before. In September of last year Market Watch reported that about 20 percent of reviews on Yelp might be fraudulent. New York fined 19 businesses over $350,000 for generating these kinds of fake reviews. So Hadeed isn’t crazy in thinking that some of his reviewers may have been paid off, or written by people who’ve never actually paid him a dime for his services. But whether or not Yelp has to disclose who these reviewers are, fraudulent or not, will now be up to the Supreme Court.