Dealing with Online Comments

Word of mouth is the lifeblood of attracting new customers, and now it travels faster than ever before thanks to the internet. Customers can snap a picture, post a comment, or leave an online review of a business in a matter of seconds. These reviews can often be found on popular websites like Angie’s List or Yahoo! Local Listings where customers post about their experiences with businesses—many of them small businesses. 

Yelp is one such popular website, experiencing 86 million unique visits a month. Another popular review site, TripAdvisor, boasts upwards of 350 million unique visitors a month. With millions of people talking about their experiences online, understanding how to respond to online comments is key to any modern enterprise’s success. In fact, upwards of 67% of consumers are influenced by online reviews before patronizing a business.

However, just as online comments can help your business, they can also hurt it. A 2011 Harvard Business School study revealed that a one-star rating change on Yelp can lead to a difference in revenue of five to nine percent. A Cone Communications marketing study found that eighty-percent of consumers “have changed their minds about purchasing a recommended product or service based solely on negative information they found online.”

That’s why it’s important for businesses to monitor online comments and respond to negative reviews. However, there is a right way, and definitely a wrong way, of doing this. In order to best interact with customers online, Yelp’s customer service department reminds entrepreneurs that:

(1) “Your reviewers are your paying customers;”

(2) “Your reviewers are human beings with (sometimes unpredictable) feelings and sensitivities;” and

(3) “Your reviewers are vocal and opinionated (otherwise they would not be writing reviews!)”

This article explores the options available to businesses in how to take down a negative, false, or perhaps even defamatory review.

Replying to Negative Reviews

Criticism is hard to stomach, especially when it’s public. But before you begin to flame away using your keyboard, keep in mind that this can turn quite nasty and may actually be counterproductive.

If you come across a negative review about your business online, the most important thing is to not respond in the heat of the moment and leave a badly worded or angry reply. You never want to come across as unprofessional or insulting in a reply—this will only add fuel to the fire and likely draw more attention to the initial post. In the worst case, such a reply might even make its way into a blog post about how not to deal with negative online reviews of your business!

Instead, try to:

  1. acknowledge the specific complaint(s) of the customer;
  2. show respect for the customer’s opinion; and,
  3. publicly offer to remedy the situation in a reasonable manner.

A reply that follows these three guidelines will likely defuse the situation and cast the replying business in positive light to those who read the review in the future.

Additionally, such a response may have the added benefit of encouraging the online poster to take down the negative review. As Hook SEO’s Matt Rouse points out, the easiest way to get rid of a bad review is to simply incentivize the customer to remove it. By respecting the customer and acknowledging their complaint, they can see that your business truly values their opinion. By attempting to reasonably remedy the problem, the original poster may feel respected enough to try your business again. If they have a pleasant experience the second time around, they may even feel inclined to edit their original review to reflect your business in a more positive light—or even delete the negative review entirely.

Dealing with False or Defamatory Statements—The Easier Way

But what if a negative review makes patently false assertions? Or maybe an online poster complains that your business committed fraud in its advertisement of services? What if a poster claims they had a bad experience, but never even visited your business at all? And what if they aren’t going to voluntarily take down their post?

For starters, it’s important to remember the difference between opinions and facts. A customer has the right to tell the world that they didn’t like your business–a right that is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They have a right to say that your food was terrible or that the service you provided wasn’t up to their expectations. However, business law does not recognize any value in false statements of fact.

Accordingly, should a person express a negative opinion about your business, that’s protected free speech. However, making a false factual assertion about your business, service, or product may not be.

If you’ve determined that a reviewer has made a false statement about your business, what can you do? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just asking the website to take down a review because it contains false information. In Yelp’s support center, it reminds business owners that Yelp typically does not “take sides in factual disputes and generally allow[s] Yelpers to stand behind their reviews.”

If, however, the review violates Yelp’s terms of use because, for example, it contains offensive, harassing, or lewd language, you may have a better shot at having the review removed by bringing it to the attention of Yelp. As Rouse notes:

Foul language is an easy way to get a review removed for a [terms of service] violation. If they are calling people names or using profanity, these can be reported and removed.”

Dealing with False or Defamatory Statements—The Harder Way

Any lawsuit against a site like Yelp for false or defamatory comments made by a user is unlikely to be worthwhile. Wired Magazine’s Clint Finley reports,

“Many small business owners have claimed that they’ve been plagued by negative reviews . . . The allegations have haunted Yelp for years, but so far, none of them has resulted in a successful lawsuit against the company.”

This is because under Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act, internet service providers such as Yelp are not the publisher or speaker of content posted on their site, and should not be responsible for the content. Courts have found that only individual users posting content are the “information content provider,” and that only they could be held liable for the content of the reviews—not the online forums.

Because of the difficulty in suing the review websites, business owners are more likely to have success against the individual(s) posting the false information. Based on the particular facts of your situation, one of the following remedies may be available to you.

Unmasking the Author Behind False or Defamatory Statements

If you’re attempting to exercise your legal rights against someone for posting false information online, one common complication is that these comments are often posted anonymously. In fact, many online profiles on websites like Yelp, GlassDoor, Trip Advisor, etc. offer little in the way of revealing the person behind the profile. However, you do have legal options for discovering the identity of who is sullying the name of your business.

In pursuing your own suit against an anonymous individual posting false or defaming statements about your business on a website like Yelp, a process for obtaining their identity could be successfully pursued by:

  1. filing a complaint in the jurisdiction of your business’s principle place of business (normally where your headquarters is located),
  2. preparing a subpoena to the operator of the website, and
  3. demonstrating how the post in question is false or defamatory.

An attorney who specializes in online issues or defamatory claims can assist you in the details of the complaint.

Ultimately, You May Just Have to Stand and Deliver Online

Even if you have a valid claim and are able to identify the individual who made a defamatory comment about your business, bringing legal action may not be worth the expense for a variety of reasons. For example, the defendant may be judgment proof because he or she is unable to pay any damages.

If all else fails, the open marketplace of ideas that is the internet may end up providing you with one final remedy—defending yourself online. This is often the cheapest option with the least hassle. Plus, as mentioned earlier, you may even be able to turn a negative review into an opportunity to cast your business in a positive light.

Regardless of which options you pursue, monitoring what people are saying about your business online is an important way to make sure your business is meeting your customers’ needs and maintaining a positive web presence.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice. This article may constitute attorney advertising under applicable state laws.