Reviews And Lawsuits – Is There a Better Way?

Yelp received a lot of attention in the online world last week for suing a bankruptcy lawyer (who had previously sued them and won) for leaving fake reviews. Suing a single practitioner may have some value in terms of the publicity and alerting businesses to the risks of creating fake reviews. But given the scale of this particular fake review problem it must largely be seen as a symbolic move on Yelp’s part if not retribution.

However the recent less publicized fake review suit and settlement by Edmunds seems to be more substantial and significantly more interesting. It was brought to my attention on Twitter by Ellen Edmands, a content manager for a car dealership marketing company in New York:

According to the lawsuit Edmunds accused Texas-based Humankind Design Ltd. of “registering nearly 2,200 fake member accounts on Edmunds’ website to post positive but bogus ratings and reviews about 25 dealerships in an attempt to influence consumers’ opinions”. Edmunds in their press release noted that Humankind, as operator of Glowingreviews.com blatantly identified “15 review sites on which it is prepared to post fake reviews; the list includes Google+, Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch and local.yahoo.com. Edmunds.com is proactively providing each of the listed sites with a copy of its filing to further support online consumers who might otherwise encounter such fraud”.

Humankind claimed that they did not post fake reviews via GlowingReviews.co, but transcribed and posted reviews left on comment cards at dealerships. In the GlowingReviews.com FAQ recovered from the Web Archive they note that “Every business plays in this grey area and this service just lets you do it much more efficiently”. Regardless, as part of the settlement it appears that GlowingReviews has been shut down.

At Blackhatworld, many bemoaned GlowingReviews downfall.  I particularly liked this comment:

The site is gone?! What the fuck?

I AM SO ANGRY RIGHT NOW ITS NOT EVEN FUNNY.

It took me a long time to find this place, and for the last half a year I’ve been using
them they have made it SO EASY to build my online reputation. I can’t even say
how angry I am right now that they’re gone. They are part of the reason I got into
local lead gen and started making good money.

If glowingreviews does not come back, someone really NEEDS to fill this gap.And they need to provide this service in a way that is 100% anonymous. To avoid lawsuits.

Comments and rationalizations like those above make it clear that these sorts of actions will do little more than slow things down and perhaps educate a few businesses that were on the fence about their practices given the perceived economic value that positive reviews contribute to a business.

But the problem with reviews is not just around greed. Many businesses feel that review sites have ignored even their most basic of concerns like preventing competitor, ex-employee & non customer spam and they use that resentment to rationalize pursuit of these sorts of practices. Google’s & Yelp’s handling of these issues via algo has done little to provide any comfort as all too many legitimate reviews seem to get the ax while the nasty ex-employee or competitor reviews seem to remain.

In France (thanks to Mohammed Alami) they have recently put in place a public, voluntary standard for sites that accept reviews that provides some of these protections in requiring some sort of  proof that the product or service has actually been bought and used while simultaneously preventing businesses from removing or tampering any of the reviews. It is hoped that adherence to these standards by businesses might also increase consumer trust in the review process.

More aggressive state and federal enforcement of rules regarding these sorts of review practices has been sporadic at best. The FTC has had only one high profile enforcement in 2010 and NY State extracted fines from a plastic surgeon in 2009 for posting fake reviews. I know of no other significant enforcement on this front at either the state or national level. I obviously think that enforcement might offer some additional educational and preventative value.

But long haul lawsuits will make but a small contribution to stem the tide of fake reviews. Perhaps in conjunction with public standards that all parties agree to, more legal enforcement and better algorithms we can preserve the value that reviews bring to the public, businesses and the sites that display them.

Perhaps though the solution will have to wait for a technological solution that verifies both the identity and the purchases of the reviewer. Let’s hope that in the meantime the review environment does not become so polluted that it loses its incredible power to both inform consumers and to market businesses.

 

 

 

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Reviews And Lawsuits - Is There a Better Way? by

17 thoughts on “Reviews And Lawsuits – Is There a Better Way?”

  1. Hi Bill

    Yelp, Edmunds and every other company that uses reviews as content needs to be sure that the content is trusted. These types of enforcements are very high profile. I just wonder whether they are really that big of a deterrent.

  2. I think there is a better way! The Better Business Bureau has educated human beings that do background checks on business owners, reads complaints, and has a resolution process to attempt to get a problem resolved before publishing the complaint. Not all complaints are always valid and they don’t publish invalid complains and have a set of standards that designates a valid complaint!

  3. @Brian
    The question at hand: How to you stop businesses from cheating on review sites. Why review sites? Because consumers find them valuable as a top to bottom resource for understanding a business. I have seen scamming of the BBB in the past as well.

  4. Mike, we remove reviews that a business challenges as being a non-customer unless the reviewer can prove (via receipt, invoice, etc.) that they were an actual customer. Its not as straightforward as you might imagine and creates lots of issues with consumers and businesses owners.

    Given the culture and community of Yelp reviewers, hard to imagine that they would ever implement something like this.

  5. Great write-up, Mike.

    I’ve always been a little puzzled as to why Yelp doesn’t sue some of these “reputation-management” companies – the way Edmunds is. I guess that wouldn’t do much to scare unethical business owners, but obviously there isn’t one solution to all of this, but rather calls for a mish-mash of solutions.

    My guess is that over time Yelp will be seen as less of a “bad guy” by business owners. Granted, Yelp needs to keep a tighter leash on the salespeople who (some people say) try to play God with reviews. And granted, the filter really needs some work. But I think other sites will follow suit in one way or another; they’ll at least need to make attempts at quality-control, or they’ll end up irrelevant.

  6. @Ted
    I understand that Yelp might not have a user facing solution to validate a purchaser. My point though is that
    1)The businesses perspective is not really considered in these scenarios
    2)Technology may in fact solve that problem. IE a check in or mobile on site interaction may “prove” the activity

  7. @Ted
    No they don’t. But business owners do. And the system needs to respect ALL of the players and attempt (as they did in France) to meet those needs. As long as Yelp and Google don’t do it, there will be a rationalization for cheating. Even after they do there might well be as well but it won’t be in the least supportable.

  8. Could be a simple way of authenticating reviews via mobile phones? You write the review, the site texts you, you text back or click a link? (Review site pays for the text). Seems like cell/mobile is a great way to review authenticate? Easy to track back too? Is anyone doing this?

  9. @Boyd
    You are spot on. Our company uses sms validation for reviews that are likely to be spammy (e.g. kiosk reviews).

    It works well but still requires some monitoring on top of it. Recently, we caught a company that had purchased a bunch of sms numbers and was writing and authenticating their own reviews.

  10. @Boyd & Ted

    The era of validated reviews is slooowly sloowly coming…. some services that actually sell products (OpenTable,Expedia) are only taking reviews from actual folks that booked something.

    There are certainly also going to be more generalized technical solutions going forward like Google and or Yelp checking your phone to see if you were actually a location or Apple knowing you actually bought something.

    But in the meantime the rules for a business to determine if a review is legit are stack heavily against the business and in favor of the on line service and anoymous (even with real names) poster.

    I have managed to annoy a few folks in my time with my writing. They have left me the same review under different names at Google and Yelp. Yelp was good enough to remove but even with Google’s “real name” policy they remain.

    The recent decision in VA. where a Judge can make the decision seems to me a rational one. Trusted entity that is empowered by law to decide if the business case to learn identity is valid.

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