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Can Bogus Yelp Reviews Shut Down Your Business?

With the growing reliance on Yelp and other online review sites, there is little you can do to fight back against bogus reviews.

Judy Scales says she feels helpless and the Northern Virginia businesswoman isn’t alone when it comes to negative reviews on Yelp.com. The 63-year-old owns Alloy Wheel Repair Specialists of Northern Virginia with her husband Dave and fears a negative review posted by an anonymous man last year may have cost her business. Sales dipped slightly for her ten-year-old business that repairs metal rims and that might be one of the reasons, she says.

There’s nothing wrong with an unhappy customer posting a negative review, Scales says. The problem in this case was the man, who called her business a “shady hack-job repair service” couldn’t have been a customer. He cited a type of repair her business doesn’t even do and suspects the man got the wrong name for work done at a dealership for which they have a contract.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Scales says. “And there’s nothing I can do about it. Some customers write good reviews, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Scales contacted Yelp to no avail because the opinion is considered legitimate, she says. The company’s advertising department has even contacted her a couple of times since the beginning of the year about placing ads. It has raised the issue of some companies that Yelp ratings could be improved by advertising with the company—an assertion Yelp executives deny.

It’s in the back of your mind,” Scales says.

Yelp has garnered plenty of negative attention in recent weeks with national articles in both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. One free-speech case is pending before the Virginia Supreme Court involving a suburban Washington, D.C. carpet cleaner, Joe Hadeed, 47, who says negative reviews on Yelp has lowered his company’s rating and cost him millions of dollars in revenue and forced him to lay off dozens of employees.

Hadeed, who claims some of the Yelp posters are fraudulent and may even be competitors, sued seven reviewers for defamation and has sought the identities from the company. The Virginia Court of Appeals is holding Yelp in contempt and now the Virginia Supreme Court will decide if it has to turn over the names to Hadeed. Yelp says the reviewers are protected by the First Amendment.

Scales says the case will help determine what she and a lot of other business owners across the country do when it comes to negative reviews.

Hopefully Joe will win his case,” Scales says. “People have a right to free speech as long as it’s correct, but not when it’s libel and slander. They shouldn’t be allowed to write anything they want when it’s not true.

The Wall Street Journal says its review of Federal Trade Commission data shows it has received more than 2,000 complaints about Yelp between 2008 and March of this year. The Journal says most of the complaints were from small businesses that claimed unfair or fraudulent reviews, many times after they turned down a Yelp advertising pitch.

The Virginia case has drawn criticism of the California-based Public Participation Project, which works with federal and state lawmakers on strengthening laws to protect citizens from lawsuits expressing their free speech on the Internet. A federal law already protects Yelp from legal action.

You should be allowed to go on Yelp and write a review about a restaurant that the service was slow and you didn’t like the food,” says Evan Mascagni, PPP’s policy director. “There are some business owners filing frivolous lawsuit for people who write their views just to silence them.

Mascagni says businesses that have legitimate claims can get their day in court but people who give a review shouldn’t have to worry about a fear of retaliation.

Yelp reviews are closely watched by companies across the country who fear it may be costing them business. Mitch Cummins, president of Las Vegas-based Opportunity Max, a digital consulting service that helps auto dealers and other businesses with online marketing and analytics to boost sales, says reputation management is critical in a company’s advertising campaign.

You can spend millions of dollars in advertising, but if I pick up the phone to find a jewelry store near me and 16 of them pop up and yours is a one star and the others have better rankings, guess what, no consideration for you. That’s the power of reputation management today, and business owners need to be very aware of it. Unfortunately with Apple’s iPhones, Siri decides who your customer is going to be because Siri only uses Yelp.

Cummins says there are instances where a business is doing malicious things to their competitors and that’s difficult to deal with for review companies such as Yelp.

Unless you’re a Yelper, you review doesn’t stick,” Cummins says. “If one guys gets a bad review, he’s a one star or no star but if they have 26 people talk well about him, they don’t think they’re real and discount them.

Scales says no business is perfect and sometimes you don’t do the best job for a customer, and they get upset and want to write a negative review. It’s up to you to fix their problem, but what can you do when people who do reviews on Yelp aren’t even customers, she says. One woman who complained that a phone call wasn’t returned and that her company didn’t work on Sundays shouldn’t drive a company’s Yelp score, she says.

You click on some of these and they’re like professional Yelpers. One woman had 66 negative reviews. What does she do all day, sit and write negative Yelp reviews?

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