The move into our new home had not gone well. For weeks prior, I had painstakingly packed and labeled our belongings. Boxes that needed extra care were marked “fragile” in red marker, bubble wrap and packing paper were my best friends—I did my part. But when it came to the movers...pure negligence.
On the day of the move, items were dropped, thrown, and dragged. Furniture was scuffed, my son’s high chair broken, and it seemed that in every other box I opened, something was damaged. I finally told the kids to keep their shoes on while in the house because I never knew when I’d be running into shattered glass next. I raged and told my husband that I had worked up quite the tongue-lashing, and I planned to post it online. No one, and I mean no one, should use this moving company.
But then, I paused. As much as I wanted to send out a warning to fellow families on the move, perhaps it was best to deal with them one on one. Online reviews can get you in trouble, or so I'd heard.
Turns out, it might've been a smart decision for me to skip my emotion-fueled online review.
In 2012, a Virginia woman named Jane Perez was sued to the tune of $750,000 for business reviews she posted on Yelp and Angie's List. In them, she accused Dietz Development of damage and theft during her home’s remodel. Owner Christopher Dietz claimed that what she posted was false, that Perez never paid him, and said that customers fled after reading her review. After Dietz's response, Perez sued back.
In a battle of defamation cases, courts determined that they both defamed each other, and declined to award either party money, according to The National Law Review.
The Perez–Dietz situation is not unique. In 2010, a plastic surgeon sued three women for $100,000 each for writing poor reviews about his practice and the outcome of their surgeries. Two years later, the owner of a pilates studio sued two different reviewers for complaining about the smell and staff. In 2014, California lawyer Dawn Hassell sued an online reviewer for defamation and won—she's been fighting to remove the inaccurate reviews from Yelp ever since.
And that’s the key. It’s not that you can’t post a negative review or give a business less than the five stars they’re reaching for. Rather, it’s that a negative review must be true. If it’s not, it’s considered defamation. And that’s where the trouble begins.
According to U.S. Code, claims of defamation allege "that forms of speech are false, have caused damage to reputation or emotional distress, have presented any person in a false light, or have resulted in criticism, dishonor, or condemnation of any person." Defamation expressed verbally is considered slander; defamatory online reviews, and other written defamation, are considered libel.
What's grounds for litigation?
The above cases seem like simple games of tag. “If you say something mean about me online, I’m going to come at you with a lawsuit!” But it's not quite that easy for a business to take you to court.
... reviewers should be careful to ensure that their reviews are either clearly non-factual opinions or statements of fact that they can prove as true.
Justin Kelton, a lawyer who routinely handles defamation cases, tells Urbo: “The key to whether you may be liable for posting a business review is whether the review contains assertions of fact, as opposed to opinion, and whether the assertions of fact are demonstrably false.”
Kelton says that consumers can post a review without worry of litigation if the review fulfills one of two checkboxes. The first being opinion: Something like “The food didn’t taste great to me,” or, in my case, “I feel like our move was a disaster," won't likely land you in court.
The second checkbox is accuracy: “We waited for 45 minutes for our table” will fly if it's true and documentable; “The high chair broke during our move” is fine if you have proof.
If a review strays from opinion or truth and contains a false assertion of fact, the reviewer is open to liability for defamation, according to Kelton. If you aren't careful in your online reviewing, you could end up in a pickle one of these days.
“In order to sue and win," Kelton concludes, "a business will need to prove that the reviewer made an assertion of fact, and that the fact is false. Conversely, in order to be protected from liability, reviewers should be careful to ensure that their reviews are either clearly non-factual opinions or statements of fact that they can prove as true.”
Basically, tell the truth just like your mama always told you to, document the scenario so you have ample evidence, and if necessary, gather witnesses who can back your position with additional facts.
Why do reviews matter?
Layla Laurence reads reviews often, and she makes many of her purchasing decisions based off her findings.
“I kind of consider the people who write reviews my friends," says Laurence. "I trust what other consumers have to say about a product or a business and buy/visit accordingly."
Honestly, I’m a lot like her. Daily, if not weekly, I’d say, I order things online, visit restaurants, and hire services based on the reviews I read. No longer do catchy advertisements sway me—now, it’s all about the review and what those who have gone before me have to say about a person, product, or place.
Laurence and I aren’t the only ones allowing reviews to guide our buying habits, shows preliminary work by Michael Luca of the Harvard Business School. Through extensive data analysis, Luca learned that a positive review leads to an increase in business, particularly in the independent restaurant category. "A one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue," Luca writes.
It’s no wonder that businesses care about what is being said about them online—positive reviews equate to income! And thus, one could deduce, negative reviews lead to a potential loss.
Briana Phillips owns Zoe Juice Bar with her husband, Jason, and they’re on the brink of opening a second location. Business is good and positive reviews are flowing—Zoe Juice Bar currently holds a 4.5 star rating on Yelp—but Phillips says they’ve had their fair share of negative reviews over the years. She has found, though, that it’s not necessarily the review that matters most, but what comes after.
“We always aim to make the customer happy,” says Phillips. “If they have had any bad service, we always make sure to comment back, call, refund, or Jason has even hand-delivered drinks himself. Customer service is very important to us.”
Just peruse their reviews, and you’ll see many reviews commending, among other things, their customer service. The effort has paid off.
And those positive, detailed reviews matter. A 2016 survey by digital marketing company Fan & Fuel found 73 percent of their respondents to be more impressed by written customer reviews than star or number ratings. Nearly all of the respondents said reviews influence their buying decisions.
“… consumers want to see customer reviews for your products and services AND they look for the nitty-gritty details in customers’ written reviews—experiences and problems they’ve had, how you’ve responded to complaints, consensus on whether or not the product/service lives up to your claims and so on. Online customer reviews tell a story that consumers trust,” reads the survey's roundup.
That’s really what it all comes down to: Trust built on true stories. A good business is aiming to build trust through quality customer service and solid business practices. That then gives the consumer power to fuel that particular business with free advertising through a positive review. The two go hand in hand, and together, they can be quite influential.
Of course, that is the ideal situation. The one where everyone wins.
No one wants the adverse story of a bad experience coupled with a negative review. But it does happen. And when it does, be diligent, and be prepared to legally proceed.
To the business: Remember that you can make the best of a negative review! Reply directly to the customer and offer compensation or a comparable remedy when applicable, like Phillips mentioned. Do your best, and don’t be afraid to combat an incorrect review in partnership with a lawyer well-versed in this area of law. You do have rights to protect yourself.
And to the reviewer: Think long and hard about your online reviews. You may be upset over the situation—I’m still mulling over the poor outcome of our move—but that doesn't mean you can lose your cool without consequence. Don't make false claims or bandy your opinion as fact. Be honest.
A lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, went as far as to say, “Exaggerations, sarcasm, and any sort of embellishment is subject to misinterpretation, and therefore should be avoided.”
So no need to be snarky. Stick to the facts, and when opinion is necessary, cordially convey it. Then, be done. Perhaps even better, go old school, pick up the phone, and ask to speak with a manager or the owner. Often, if your goal is to remedy a situation or receive compensation, that will get you much further than hiding behind a keyboard.