Yelp Extortion Case: Does a Company "Mantra" Have Legal Weight?


Bad reviews? We don't get ANY reviews!

Angry small business owners are, again, taking the shizzle out of Yelp.com, the customer review site alleged to be "highly popular." A Long Beach, California veterinarian has sued the company over Yelp's high-pressure sales pitches, which included manipulation of negative review rankings.

Wired has the story and the court filing [pdf]. We begin with the wrath of Gregory Perrault, owner of Dogs and Cats Hospital, over a negative review of his business…

He researched the information in the review and discovered that it referred to a hospital visit that occurred more than 18 months prior to its posting. (Yelp's policy allows reviews to be posted within 12 months of an experience with the business.) The hospital asked Yelp to remove the review for violating Yelp's review guidelines, and the site complied. But a second negative review appeared five days later from a user identified as Kay K.

That review read in part:

Dr. Perrault is the rudest vet I've ever been to … probably one of the rudest people I've had the displeasure of meeting. I agree with the previous reviews about making you feel like an unfit mom. My pup had been sick and I had a theory on what the problem may have been and he wouldn't even entertain the idea, but instead, made me feel bad because my dog got sick. And, my poor dog was terrified of him! He made me feel like I was 2 inches tall and repeatedly looked down his nose at me. Oh, and OVER PRICED! OMG! Who does he think he is??? I did not feel welcomed by him nor his staff. I paid you for a service! No need to treat me so bad!

The plaintiff claims that Yelp sales staff then began calling the hospital frequently with "high-pressure" tactics promising to move or delete negative reviews in exchange for purchasing a one-year advertising contract. The site also allegedly promised to ensure that negative reviews wouldn't appear in Google or other search engine results. When the hospital declined, the negative review from "Chris R." re-appeared on the site, followed by a second negative review from Kay K.

The latter review referred to Dr. Perrault as "an @$$" and "a jerk, a D-Bag, And so arrogant."

I ran in to him in a neighborhood store right after he saw my poor sick dog at his clinic and he looked right at me, recognized me, rolled his eyes and looked away!!!! Seriously, someone needs to knock this guy down to the size he really is. He needs to drop his Napolean complex and be a professional. After my horrible experience with him, I took my sick dog to Bixby Animal Clinic and I have never had a more pleasant vet experience! Go there instead! My dog loved everyone there!

When the hospital complained to Yelp, the site sent a letter to the hospital saying it would be leaving the reviews in place.

If you think the occurence of the phrase "Yelp would allow Cats and Dogs to decide…" in a lawsuit is more proof that web 2.0 is making America dumber, an old East Bay Express story details incidents including one where a Yelp representative offered a nightclub better review placement in exchange for free drinks.

Is any of this actionable? Short of demonstrating that Chris R. and/or Kay K. are Yelp employees or a single Yelp employee, I'm not sure it is. By reposting the Chris R. review, Yelp may have violated its own policy of only posting reviews written within 12 months of the customer experience. (I haven't found any reference to this policy on the site and I'm not a regular Yelp user.) This seems more in the way of an infraction and a peevish response than what the suit calls "unfair business acts and practices" that are "immoral, unscrupulous" and offensive to public policy.

The lawsuit alleges:

Yelp, however, regularly manipulates the content on Yelp.com listing pages, despite Yelp's mantra of "Real people. Real reviews."

But here's a reasonable person standard: Yelp does not promise not to manipulate the content on its listing pages, and it is wise to assume an advertiser would get more benefit from that manipulation than a non-advertiser. Go look at a long page of Amazon customer reviews and you'll see plenty of dark surmises about how Amazon may be moderating down negative reviews. If people believe that about Amazon, which actually lets you set your results page to read only negative reviews, it's a good bet readers of every review site take the people-empowerment claims made by social media sites about as seriously as their grandparents took the claim that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure or that Geritol relieved tired blood. (And who's reading these reviews anyway? Usually when I end up on Yelp it's to get the address or phone number of the place.)

Yelp's terms of service stipulate:

We may use Your Content in a number of different ways, including displaying it on the Site, reformatting it, incorporating it into advertisements and other works, creating derivative works from it, promoting it, distributing it, and allowing others to do the same in connection with their own websites and media platforms ("Other Media"). As such, you hereby irrevocably grant us permission to use Your Content for any purpose. You also irrevocably grant the Site's users and the users of any Other Media the right to access Your Content in connection with their use of the Site and any Other Media. Finally, you irrevocably waive, and cause to be waived, any claims and assertions of moral rights or attribution with respect to Your Content.

An Amazon customer reviewer once tried to get me to pay him damages me because I quoted his (very Joycean) negative comment that the only way for Ulysses to be a worse book would be for it to come to your house and defecate on your bed. So maybe there are rights attached to user-generated content I'm not aware of. And if there's one thing I learned at the media-law seminars they made us attend regularly at the L.A. Times, it's that every fact you publish will get your employer sued for millions of dollars so publish as few facts as possible.

But Yelp's terms to my eye give Yelp the right to edit, highlight, disappear or do pretty much anything else with its customer reviews. That may or may not make it worth $2,600 a year for an animal hospital to get more favorable treatment. But it also doesn't seem like grounds for a suit.

Courtesy of Rob McMillin.