(Robyn Lee/Flickr)

Last week, an appellate court in Virginia ruled that Yelp had to reveal the real names of seven people who posted negative reviews about a carpet cleaning company. The carpet company alleged that the anonymous reviewers had not actually used its services, and that their critical reviews were defamatory. But Yelp and its supporters maintain that online anonymity is a First Amendment right.

Guests:
Vince Sollitto, vice president of corporate communications for Yelp
Andrew Keen, host of "Keen On," a TechCrunch TV talk show
Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit group devoted to protecting online civil liberties

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    I use my real name when I write reviews. And when I read a review with ‘Anonymous’ as the name of the reviewer I question whether the review is even legit.

    Also remember you have people who get paid to write/tweet negative reviews of a competitor. Or a positive review for the book, item a site is pushing.

    Thankfully sites like Amazon now have a notation ‘verified purchase’ when you write a review and have bought the item from Amazon. I like that!!

  • Joe

    Every business that I’ve reviewed on Yelp I’ve actually visited. Many of them I’ve reviewed negatively because I just don’t find a lot of competence in the retail zone. If I see that some lame and corrupt business owner, who is too stupid to fix the problems he or she has caused, is starting to attack customers for whatever reason, I will surely make my reviews of that business more negative. We must all realize however that Yelp is truly a protection racket, which employes people to cold-call businesses asking for money to suppress reviews. Some Starbucks pay Yelps to suppress negative reviews, for example. Businesses that attack negative reviewers are deciding to pay a lawyer instead of paying protection money to Yelp.

  • David Macpherson

    As an attorney, I have several clients who are convinced that some of their YELP reviews are from competitors or, disgruntled former employees. If YELP will not take down the review, it is both irritating and detrimental to the Company. There should be a better procedure to prove to YELP that a review is likely bogus and violates YELP’s policies.

  • Joshua DeHart

    I’m probably looking at this from the wrong angle, but for some strange reason I have no problem with this business demanding its critics reveal themselves. I don’t believe those who post reviews (positive or negative) at any time are protected by the First Amendment if their complaint is false (in this case: they were never customers of the company). Our laws allow for civil cases alleging defamation, and demanding the names of (positive or negative) reviewers to determine if the reviewer was a customer seems reasonable. If this results in a legal action against those non-customers (who have no business posting at all about a company’s services), the First Amendment doesn’t protect them from the consequences of their speech. I would have a huge problem if the business turned on their customers in an attempt to suppress their views based on their experience with the company.

  • Robert Thomas

    It’s shocking and perplexing that anyone believes the reviews they read on Yelp or other similar boards.

  • tduane62

    I think Yelp should be forced to establish that the person actually had a transaction with the target of their review. They can keep their user-privacy. LinkedIn.com does something similar in that you can only endorse someone you’ve actually worked with.

    • Jimmy Docs

      In general, who determines if someone was a customer or not? Let’s say that someone sends you flowers from FTD and they arrived dead. So you go on Yelp and write a review stating that FTD delivers dead flowers. FTD argues that since you are not in their records as a customer, then your review must be fake. Should that real and honest review be removed???

      • tduane62

        I see your point. The solution in that example would be to have the person who paid for the flowers write the review.

      • Frequentshopper

        Also, the reviews are supposed to be about a personal experience. There is a huge percentage of positive reviews on Yelp which recommend a place and go on and on about what is so great about them without ever stating they actually went there or purchsed the items or services they are raving about. When I have reported these obviously fake reviews Yelp alway declares they are valid even though they don’t describe a personal experience as required by their own rules. Yelp also often refuses to invalidate reviews of non profit art organizations in which the reviewer mentions having been supported (financially) by the org. That means they were given economic benefit. That’s the closest thing to an employee you can get without being one, and if that’s a valid review then someone paid to do a review is just as valid.

      • Beth Grant DeRoos

        FTD does not deliver flowers, FTD licensed florists do, so if flowers arrived dead or were not the ones shown on the order, then FTD would want the name of the florist as bad service is bad for FTD.

        Now if the review was for a florist, then they should have a record of the order and not be mad of indeed the flowers arrived dead and that is what your review noted.

  • Chemist150

    I’ve gotten death threats for saying I’m an atheist. The people that want to know who the reviewer is, is likely someone that wishes to harasses those reviewing.

    If you’re in the situation to be reviewed, that is your choice. So, live with the consequences.

    It should be enough that Yelp and the like validate their users as being real users.

    • Ehkzu

      Good point. Imagine writing a negative Yelp review of a gun shop and having NRA fanatic types showing up packing in front of your home.

      • Chemist150

        LOL.
        Effectively, that is my point.

        At least you’d have a gun to defend yourself in that case.

        I’ve never even shot a real gun.

  • Guest

    I don’t use Yelp, nor will I ever… In general though, who determines if someone was a customer or not? Let’s say that someone sends you flowers from FTD and they arrived dead. So you go on Yelp and write a review stating that FTD delivers dead flowers. FTD argues that since you are not in their records as a customer, then your review must be fake. Should that real and honest review be removed???

  • amyj1276

    I rely on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor when making plans. I honestly don’t care about anonymity or not; I look for themes, especially for hotels. Anyone with common sense can figure out what reviews are too glowing or if someone is too nitpicky. But if a large percent of reviews are complaining (or raving) about similar things, then I pay attention. I have only been disappointed a few times when reviews are generally positive.

    • Joe

      See bedbugregistry.com before visiting hotels.

  • William Robathan

    Anonymity is a very valid concern if Yelp has a direct positive economic interest in anonymous negative reviews.

    How much revenue does Yelp receive from advertising by businesses who have been solicited after receiving bad reviews? What percentage is it?

    Does Yelp receive revenue from companies with negative reviews for removing them?

  • Ehkzu

    Yelp reviews are exactly like professional reviwers’ reviews in the sense that you have to use your own discernment with both. For example, the New York Times printed a negative review of soprano Jackie Evancho. She’s a classical crossover singer, but the reviewer they sent is a rap/hip-hop reviewer for the most part who doesn’t like Evancho’s genre of music. I’d have been better served by a dozen Yelp reviews by people who actually like the genre.

    With Yelp reviews i read them carefully, and only lend credence to negative reviews if there are a lot of them. And as with Amazon.com reviews many of the negative reviews are by idiots who didn’t understand how to use the product.

  • James Rustles

    Yelp creates the problem by letting people who have never used and/or purchased these products and services anonymously review said products and/or services. They offer a solution for this problem they created by making you pay to remove these negative reviews. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Chuck

    My wife works at a winery in the Napa Valley where Yelp has had a huge negative impact on their business.
    First after receiving a bad Tasting Room Yelp review, the Vice President of Marketing tracked down the reviewer and “bribed” them with free wine to recant their posting. Then proceeded to instruct all employees to contact family and friends to write fake good reviews to boost the company’s overall Yelp rating.
    Secondly on two occasions bad Yelp reviews were used as a primary reason for terminating employees. Even thou both reviews did not mention the said employees by name. The reviews were anonymous and could very well have been written by friends of the supervisor who had wanted to get rid of these employees to begin with.

  • Tuxandgown Renta-dress

    I have a small business in Las Vegas. While paying Yelp for advertising, many of my favorable reviews were shown. As soon as I dropped the advertising campaign, only 2 bad reviews from 2008 and 2009 magically reappeared. Extortion without shame!

    • Jens Emil Ravn Nielsen

      After we turned down the offer to pay for advertising most of our positive reviews got filtered and many of our previously filtered negative reviews came back out of the filter. It was very obvious what Yelp was trying to get us to do.

  • MAB

    I had a bad experience with Yelp myself.
    I suggest Yelp have TWO systems: One anonymous Yelp review system, for those who want it.
    The OTHER open transparent Yelp review system for the public who wants transparency.
    Then the public can read and review to their preference of secrecy or transparency.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    I posted a negative review for an auto mechanic in SF. His shop had only five or six reviews. I was a customer multiple times and the last 2 thousand dollar bill found work half done and the paint scratched off the rear quarter panel where they hit a wall. I wrote that I like the owner’s personality, but that for his high labor rate (then $125/hour), the car should have work paid for completely done, not sloppily done. The review was 100% accurate and my experience. It stayed up for a couple of weeks and then was removed, leaving only the half-dozen positive ones.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Also, my dear friend was an HR manager at a very large hotel in Japantown. One day, when he arrived for work, he found a room with several managers busily working away on laptops writing reviews – glowing, of course – they were posing as guests who had stayed there.

  • Chemist150

    I’ve seen the first reviews are by the person and friends. Then the real reviews follow that get suckered in by the initial reviews.

    A valid review comes from many reviews, anonymous or not. A few reviews will always have a high probability of inaccuracy.

    Just because you don’t realize that Bob is Jane’s husband doesn’t mean it’s an honest review when Bob say’s that Jane’s work is good.

  • t s

    The trouble I have is when Yelp hides reviews. I’d rather have all the reviews thanks. If one or two is written by obvious trolls, I think I’m smart enough to figure that out on my own. Just make it easy for me to see what that person has been reviewing.

    As far as I’m concerned, more reviews is always better. Amazon has the best review system out there, and you don’t see them deleting negative reviews.

  • Jens Emil Ravn Nielsen

    Anonymity is for cowards. Unless your real identity puts you in actual jeopardy, stating an opinion anonymously is cowardly. If you won’t claim your views then they are not your views! If you like a place, freaking like as yourself! My Yelp account was deleted years ago because I left a negative review at a car dealership while I was also working at a different car dealership. I worked at a place with exotic and collector’s vehicles. In other words, I was never going to buy a vehicle out of my own inventory. I went to a different dealership with vehicles in my realistic market and had a negative experience. Not a week later, my account was deleted and I was given no opportunity to contact Yelp management. I reached out time and again and then just gave up. So much for four years of reviews.

  • Matt

    Yelp’s filtering system does most of the work for the public in which to decided what reviews are legit and what reviews are bogus. I have 320 reviews on Yelp and am an “elite” member, thus giving the reader the opportunity to look at my review towards the top of each business’ page…my reviews are proven to be credible and legit because of my long standing record with yelp (since April of 2008). Now someone who comes on yelp, has no friends, no picture and one or two reviews will be filtered out as being not credible..simply because they don’t have a background using the site.

    Those claiming that Yelp hurts businesses and is worthless (such as that 2nd caller) clearly don’t understand the value a service like Yelp can bring to businesses. For one thing, it’s written by average people…not some critic in a newspaper who may or may not be compromised to favor a particular establishment due to personal connections. Yelp is also an amazing tool for businesses to keep tabs on issues like bad service. If you own a restaurant and 9 out of 10 reviews say you have bad service, chances are you HAVE an issue…and with Yelp, you can identify the problems your establishment is having and fix it.

    Bottom line is that when using any review based website, it’s best to read a few reviews and get a general feel for what’s really going on. It’s common sense people…

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