Use Google or another search engine to see how your drycleaning business looks
on the internet
and you’ll likely find your company listed among a host of directory services. Among
those is likely to
be a listing on Yelp accompanied by reviews that have been submitted by Yelp
Those reviews can be either positive or negative; Yelp users are free to express
their opinions and
grade a business with one to five stars. And they have done so freely and often,
reaching a wide
audience. The on-line review site says it hosts more than 47 million reviews and
gets 100 million site
visits every month.
Negative reviews have a far-reaching and long-lasting effect, so if you get a
bad review and a low
rating, you’ll likely want to know what went wrong that caused someone to post it. You may
things in the review that make you wonder if that person is actually a customer
of your store — things
that don’t add up such as the description of the store and the people who work there, the
received and the charges they paid.
Yelp’s “terms of service” require reviews to be written by actual customers who base their reviews
on their personal experiences. One may suspect that those terms have been
violated, but proving it is
Charlie Smith, owner of Village Square Cleaners in Reston, VA, is convinced that
a negative Yelp
review that was posted over two years ago did not come from a customer, but his
complaints to Yelp
have fallen on deaf ears. The reviewer told of a “horrible experience” in which her clothes were
thrown back at her and she was told by the owner’s wife to “get your cheap pants out of here” and
that her money was “no good” here.
“Good luck if you decide to take your business here,” the reviewer concluded. “The son of the owner
seemed embarrassed but appears to be used to these circumstances,” she added.
Smith said there are many details in the review that do not ring true, not the
least of which was
that his wife has never worked at the store, his son has not been there for
years nor are there any
male employees at the store. The words of the “wife” quoted by the reviewer appear to reflect a non-
native speaker of English. Smith said no such persons work at the store.
Further, there are no records of a customer “Claudia G,” the name the reviewer used to identify
herself, or the $37 charge she referenced for a jacket and hemming of pants.
Since the review was posted in December, 2011, Smith has made several attempts
to convince Yelp
that it is not legitimate. In the most recent correspondence, Yelp told Smith
again that it was going to
leave the review in place.
“If a review appears to reflect a user’s personal experience and opinions, it is our policy to let the
user stand behind their review,” Yelp said in a response to a letter from Smith in December.
Smith said that every time he has discussed the matter with a Yelp
representative he gets the same
type of response and at this point he has given up trying to rectify the matter.
But another Virginia business owner vexed by a similar situation took Yelp to
court over reviews he
believed to be phony. He won a victory in January when the Virginia Court of
Appeals told Yelp to
identify seven reviewers who had left negative reviews about Hadeed Carpet
Cleaning in Alexandria,
After reviewing his database and finding no record that the reviewers were
customers, the owner, Joe Hadeed, attempted to learn the identify of the
reviewers but Yelp
repeatedly refused to tell him.
Hadeed sued the “John Doe” authors of seven critical reviews and subpoenaed Yelp to learn the
identities of the anonymous reviewers. He claimed that the reviews were false
Attorneys representing Yelp claimed that the anonymous reviewers were protected
by their First
Amendment right of free speech.
Hadeed said in court documents that he believed most of the reviews, many of
about unfair business practices and deceptive advertising, were coming from a
small number of users
who were creating fake accounts to post multiple reviews.
Hadeed wanted Yelp to reveal the identities of the reviewers since he believed
they were making
false statements designed to damage his business. He wanted to sue them for
those actions but Yelp’s
policies made it impossible for him to learn the identities of the person or
persons who were attacking
“The Virginia statute makes the judge a gatekeeper to decide whether or not there’s a common-
sense reason for someone in our position to get this information,” said Hadeed’s attorney, Raighne
Delaney. “In order for someone like Joe Hadeed to find out who these people are, he has to
his case, and if he can convince the judge that there might be a real lawsuit
against this person, the
judge can then say, ‘Yes, you can get this information.’”
In a court opinion that said Hadeed had a legitimate reason for getting that
William Petty wrote, “Generally, a Yelp review is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is
person’s opinion about a business that they patronized. But this general protection
relies upon an
underlying assumption of fact: that the reviewer was a customer of the specific
company and he
posted his review based on his personal experience with the business. If this
underlying assumption of
fact proves false, in that the reviewer was never a customer of the business,
then the review is not an
opinion; instead, the review is based on a false statement of fact — that the reviewer is writing his
review based on personal experience. And ‘there is no constitutional value in false statements of
“An internet user does not shed his free speech rights at the log-in screen,” Petty wrote in his
majority opinion, but the right to speak with anonymity is not absolute.
“If we assume that the Yelp reviews of Hadeed are lawful, then the John Does may
anonymous,” the court said. “But if the reviews are unlawful in that they are defamatory, then the
John Does’ veil of anonymity may be pierced, provided certain procedural safeguards are
met. This is
because defamatory speech is not entitled to constitutional protection.”
The court decided that Hadeed demonstrated that the reviewers’ identity is crucial to his case and
he had a good-faith basis for believing the reviews are defamatory.
“Without the identity of the Doe defendants, Hadeed cannot move forward with its
lawsuit,” the 27-page opinion stated. “There is no other option. The identity of the Doe defendants is
not only important, it is necessary.”
It’s not likely that Hadeed will learn the identity of the anonymous reviewers
anytime soon. Yelp
appears ready to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court and is
defending its position on its
blog, officialblog.yelp.com, where its senior director of litigation, who
identifies himself as Aaron S.,
said the ruling “sets Virginia apart from other states when it comes to free speech rights for
“Without requiring any actual evidence that wrongdoing had occurred — or even any evidence that
the reviews themselves were untrue — the Virginia appellate court ordered Yelp to disclose the
identities of the reviewers,” he wrote.
“This ruling would allow a business owner in Virginia to obtain identifying
information, such as birth
dates, email addresses and IP addresses, of individuals that wrote reviews about
that business based
not on evidence, but only on the speculation of the business owner that maybe
these individuals were
not customers, but unidentified competitors,” he added.
Yelp says its software systems filter reviews to determine what gets posted and
hidden. Thus a person who signs on with a single review, whether positive or
negative, is not likely to
see that review published on line. The filter is supposed to filter out the
axe-grinders or competitors
who just want to slam a business as well as “friends” of the business who just want to give it a boost.
Yelp said its filter software “looks at dozens of different signals, including various measures of
quality, reliability, and activity on Yelp. Most of all, however, it’s looking for people who are
intrinsically motivated to share the wide range of rich and detailed experiences
they have every day
with local businesses.
Reviews that are likely to be filtered out are those from less established
users, those that seem like
mere rants or raves, possible fakes based on multiple reviews originating from
the same computer or
those that suggest a bias like those written by a friend of the business owner.
The filtering system is another source of frustration for Smith who, like other
knows that customers have submitted positive reviews that are filtered out and
Smith said several regular customers were asked to submit reviews to Yelp, which
they did, but
Yelp filtered them out.
In a Dec. 13 letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, Smith wrote, “When approached by your sales-
staff, we pointed out that there was erroneous information submitted as a review
for one of our
cleaners… We wrote in to disavow the misinformation and to this day, the negative
has not been removed.
“Obviously, we declined to do any advertising when no action was taken to correct
your staff. We certainly wouldn’t consider any involvement with you until the erroneous reviews are
“We have maintained an excellent reputation in our community and take offense
when untrue and
fraudulent information is published about us.”
“Having received no response to our earlier attempts to correct an injustice and
untruth, sadly, I
am not expecting any positive action on your part. I can only rely on my
national reputation in our
industry to educate my fellow association members on your lack of customer
responsiveness. This letter is my last attempt to right a wrong that has been
perpetrated on us.”
Smith received a response, not from the CEO but from a person identified as “Sierra” of Yelp User
“Please note asking for reviews is not something we encourage,’ she wrote. “For one thing, most
businesses tend to ask their happiest customers to write reviews, not the
unhappy ones. These self-
selected reviews tell only part of the story, and we don’t think that’s fair to consumers. We would
much rather hear from members of the Yelp community who are inspired to talk
experiences without a business owner’s encouragement.”
Sierra suggested that with a Yelp business account, Smith could privately
message the user or
publicly comment on the review, along with posting information about his
“It’s very frustrating,” Smith wrote in an email to National Clothesline. “Many think Yelp is sleazy
and they are just trying to sell ads.”
“Basically, I have given up trying to expose the unethical practices of Yelp; but
I would be happy to
cooperate with anyone who attempts to educate the consumers.”