Sticks and stones might break some bones, but a few hundred-word Yelp reviews could deal some serious damage to a small business's reputation.
Sometimes the results make for can't-miss entertainment. (See: What Reddit-abetted Yelpers did to Amy's Baking Company after a particularly brutal episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.) On the other hand, some Yelp reviewers feel like they should be paid—seriously!—for their contributions.
Then there's the frightening and very real possibility that a thoughtless post on something like Yelp can land a reviewer in a thorny legal nightmare they never saw coming. WNYC's New Tech City aired a fascinating show this week that takes a close look at some of the ways navigating the Wild West of online reviews can land both the reviewer and reviewee in hot water.
The story kicks off with what by all appearances seems to be a shady online business called KlearGear. Here's the episode:
You might have heard of KlearGear before. If you haven't, the case involves a woman named Jen Palmer and her husband, John. In 2008, Jen purchased a few small tchotchkes—things like a smiley-faced keychain—from KlearGear.com. When she didn't receive them, she left what she described as a "scathing" review online, calling KlearGear "at best completely irresponsible and unacceptable, at worst pure fabrication and a thinly-veiled attempt to cover your own ineptitude." Yeouch.
This is where things get interesting. KlearGear claims it had hidden a non-disparagement clause in its terms of service, and since Palmer used the site to purchase stuff, she had implicitly agreed to it. (It's eventually revealed that the clause was added to the terms of service long after Palmer hit the buy button.)
Long story short, KlearGear asked that Jen take the review down. She refused. Palmer and her husband were then charged a $3,500 fine by the business, which the couple refused to pay. Ninety days later, KlearGear treated the fine as an unpaid bill, wrecking the Palmers's credit, leaving them unable to pay their heating bill. As New Tech City producer Alex Goldmark tells Fast Company, "That's not something most unsatisfied customers will be willing to go through to defend one review."
The KlearGear case highlights one of the fundamental tensions currently plaguing today's reputation economy. On the one hand, you have honest reviewers who should not feel hesitant to say what they think about a business. On the other—as New Tech City highlights later on in the episode—Yelp has to do what it can to protect honest businesses from trolls and dishonest reviews, without infringing on a reviewer's right to free speech. After all, Yelp obviously wants—and needs—users to contribute reviews of local businesses in order to thrive.
It is all very messy. Compounding the situation is the fact that our current laws are still catching up to the current state of technology. "There's a sense from users of sites like Yelp that the sites would be improved if they could weed out the bad comments before it gets to this level," says Goldmark. "Clearly Yelp can't be expected to personally validate every comment with a human fact checker, but there can be some auto-checks, like if an IP address uploads multiple bad comments about a single business, or if one person only posts one-star reviews, maybe that commenter should be hidden."
In the end, it's in the best interest of a service provider like Yelp to figure out where that line should be drawn, or if it should be drawn at all. "The more they can do to make the reviews trustworthy, the more people will rely on their site, and the more business Yelp will get," adds Goldmark.
You can listen to the series on WNYC over here.