CBS Affiliate Hammers Yelp — Again

Maybe it’s the tone of this political season, maybe it’s that CBS is the home of 60 minutes; but a local, SF Bay Area CBS affiliate appears to be on a self-appointed mission to uncover perceived conspiracies at Yelp. The station’s most recent report reprises its original “Yelp is deceptive and unresponsive” report.

I wrote a post in response to that original report. It received a lot of comments, including a couple of personal attacks on Yelp personnel that I removed because the posters had used false identities to level the attacks.

Yelp has changed, in the past several years, from a “cool” underdog startup to a highly influential information source for consumers. 

Here’s an interesting bit from the most recent CBS report:  

Yelp told CBS 5 ConsumerWatch having competitors’ ads on a businesses page is no different than advertising in the Yellow Pages. But businesses CBS 5 spoke with say the Yellow Pages does not post reviews by individuals, reviews that some feel are unfounded.

This statement, in an unreflective way, captures the cultural shift from the world we used to live in to the one we live in today. The piece then goes on to talk about a particular local business in which there’s a perceived attack on the owner:

Weimax Wines in Burlingame had 25 positive reviews and one negative on Yelp, but it’s not about the store, it’s about manager Ellen Weisl.

“This is a personal attack on my character,” Weisl said.

Someone Ellen doesn’t even know wrote this review saying: “She must have a miserable life…Someone who thinks her poop doesn’t stink.” The reviewer also said, “Sorry I didn’t waste my education on wines…” 

Weisl emailed Yelp requesting the review be removed.

But Weisel said Yelp told her,” They reviewed the posting and that they wouldn’t remove it.”

The review in question is the third one down from the top. Beyond the off-color remark about “poop,” the review expresses a mostly legitimate opinion regarding customer service at the shop — albeit in a personalized way. It’s not defamatory but it raises a very difficult question. 

In my understanding of the current state of the law, Yelp isn’t on the hook for defamation if reviewers do post something libelous. However, if Yelp gets into editing or censoring those reviews it could be. It creates a dilemma because Yelp wants to create a “respectful” and “fair” culture but not get into rendering legal opinions about individual reviews. In addition, it’s a slippery slope when you start to remove some reviews but not others; your “editorial integrity” becomes compromised. (There need to be bright lines about what’s not permissible in reviews.)

Fairness is the key word here. 

Many business owners are probably shocked by the fact that their customers and potential customers now have this sort of power and that they need to be careful. There will always be wackos and outliers but the Internet has shifted power to consumers. But I’m also quite sympathetic to the challenges of running a small business these days. A business owner can have a “bad day” and that can become enshrined in a kind of permanent record online. It’s a difficult problem. 

Yelp decided not to allow businesses to post responses to individual reviews but it will allow businesses to contact reviewers “behind the scenes.” According to my research, a majority of SMBs still appear to have a positive view of the online reviews phenomenon:

SMB attitudes toward online reviews

What small businesses need from Yelp and other, similar sites is clarity and guidance about the rules (see this post on what is a “legitimate review“). There’s obvious confusion in the market about what SMBs should expect and what’s permitted. 

The law will also evolve to address how publishers can and should handle defamation on user review sites. But more importantly the immediate challenge is to create balance between the interests of businesses and consumers and tools for businesses to address consumer complaints. Yelp has done that to a degree. Indeed, the site might go further in the direction of services for small businesses (calendaring, online booking, video, etc.) rather than straight placement-based advertising. 

Kudzu has also done something interesting with its business network, an alternative way for businesses to recommend and promote each other in front of consumers. 

The world of UGC and “Web 2.0” is messy and complex and very much still evolving. But it’s a waste of time to be nostalgic for a time when all of this didn’t exist. 

6 Responses to “CBS Affiliate Hammers Yelp — Again”

  1. George Says:

    Good post! This is obviously a very complicated issue. I think we need to all realize that reviews won’t be 100% accurate and that there will be outliers. Maybe Yelp needs to kick off some type of campaign for this. If we all keep this in mind, we’ll realize that from that perspective, a product like Yelp can still be very useful. The business owner also needs some sort of voice, and on Jippidy.com we have created a platform where a local business can create a profile and pitch their product.

  2. Cheap Eats with Yelp | The Frugal One Says:

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  3. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    I like the TripAdvisor approach where businesses can respond to specific reviews. At least they then get to present their side of the story. Not sure if Yelp allows this.

  4. Greg Sterling Says:

    Yelp does not. They said it would make for a kind of defensive tit for tat (my words).

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  6. Alma Gray Says:

    You know, it’s called freedom of speech–so long as the comment is not obscene, it should be allowed to stand. Part of the beauty of sites like yelp are they’re supposed to be uncensored and honest.

    Anyway, best way to prevent it is to treat others as you’d want to be treated.

    On the otherhand, there will always be cowards out there hiding behind anonymity on the internet…you know, haters who don’t have the balls to come out and fess up to a nasty personal attack.

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