Yelp Going to the Virginia Supreme Court for its Fake Reviews

yelpHaven’t we been here before?

It seems like it was just March 21 when we brought a #PRFail editorial about Yelp and its fake reviews. In the post, we brought three lawsuits to your attention under the premise of Yelp’s plight of “free speech debate” could cause some serious drama for the ubiquitous ratings and reports website.

Whelp, we should have called Vegas because Yelp is in the news about its reviews. You know? Again. And this time, they are visiting the highest court in the land cloaking itself in the warm embrace of the First Amendment. (Well, highest court in Virginia, but you get the point. The s#!t is about to hit the fan.)

Good luck with that… 

In the aforementioned post, we highlighted the unfortunate story (and pending publicized lawsuit) of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning.

Take the case of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. Dude gets seven negative reviews that burned his behind, but because they were anonymous, he sued Yelp — you know, defamation of character. Never mind that his service may suck out loud. He was hurt because he couldn’t track the offenders (some of whom were almost certainly fraudulent Yelpers) by their emails.

Of course, Mr. Hadeed isn’t alone. In fact, The Federal Trade Commission reportedly received more than 2,046 complaints filed about Yelp from 2008 through March 4 of this year.

That led to Hadeed’s case going to the big court for a decision. From the WSJ story:

Over the next several weeks, a string of similarly harsh reviews replaced more-favorable comments “as if someone had flipped a switch,” said the 47-year-old Mr. Hadeed, in an interview last month at his offices, where trucks drop off carpets to be washed, rinsed and dried…

…Following the rash of negative Yelp reviews, business sank 30 percent in 2012, Mr. Hadeed says. Last year, Hadeed cleaned just 20,000 carpets, down from 29,000 in 2011. Revenue fell to $9.5 million from $12 million in 2011. Mr. Hadeed said the business has let 80 workers go and sold six trucks, reducing its fleet to 54.

Yelp WSJ infographicAs we know, for some strange reason, it’s so much easier to be petty than offer some praise. It is a breeze to research the right contact, click open an email or review, and type a furious pace for an email that would Mein Kampf seem like family-friendly reading. However, you just don’t have time to do the same thing for something good?!

To wit, Hadeed has a case and Yelp is blowing the dust off its crisis communications plan in hopes they aren’t blasted off the Web. Namely since he can “prove” some of these reviews are fake. One review even came from a small town in N.J. where Hadeed doesn’t even do business.

Hadeed sued for defamation and demanded that Yelp turn over the true identities of these “reviewers.” So far, both the Alexandria Circuit Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals have sided with Mr. Hadeed, holding Yelp in contempt for not turning over the names.

Yelp in January appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the reviews are protected under the First Amendment and that Mr. Hadeed offered scant evidence that they were fakes. Here’s the rub: Consumer-review websites are protected from “liability for defamation claims stemming from user comments” under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Whether he wins or not, who knows? However, the ethical and PR question is if people can air their dirty laundry online, why can’t the source of the crusty shorts have an equal opportunity to clean said laundry with a real person instead of a fake avatar?

If you were in charge of Yelp’s PR, what would you do? Besides, prepare for some court costs and easel presentations.

Publish date: April 11, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT