The big news this week was that a Virginia court ordered Yelp to turn over the name of seven reviewers who gave negative (and anonymous) reviews to a Carpet business. Hadeed Carpet claimed that the seven reviewers were not actual customers and that their reviews should be removed.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Yelp has stated they are going to appeal the verdict, on the grounds that these seven people are having their First Amendment right of anonymous Free Speech taken away. Does anyone find this confusing? If somebody writes something untruthful about another person and then causes damage to that person, the aggrieved person can sue the writer for libel. If that same writer said something publicly that wasn’t true and caused damage, they can be sued for slander. In this case, seven people were allowed to say something anonymously that caused damage and they should be protected? If the information they are saying is indeed true, why do they need the shield of anonymity? What exactly can Hadeed’s Carpet do to these people for saying that their service was less than admirable?
I discussed this with a lawyer friend, Matthew Hintz from Servilla Whitney LLC. He noted:
“it seems to be a roundabout type of logic: to determine if the comments are entitled to 1st Amendment protection for the content, they must have the 1st Amendment protection of anonymity removed.”
We could indeed go around in circles for years on this argument, but to what end?
I struggle with Yelp’s logic, but frankly I struggle with several things Yelp does. They announced this week that they had “outed” 285 businesses that have been paying a third party to give them inflated positive reviews. They post a significantly sized warning on the businesses Yelp page to indicate that this has happened. I agree that paying people to write bogus positive reviews is ridiculous and should be called out. What I don’t agree with is that bogus negative reviews should be treated any differently.
Another perspective was offered this week that we wholeheartedly endorse. The concept of a “trusted review” (you have to read down towards the bottom to get there, so skim to the 6th paragraph if you want to get right to the point) is not a panacea, but it goes a long way to addressing this issue. Businesses give their customers a special “code” that they enter on the review or rating site in question, and this confirms that the transaction between the two is valid. There are other ways you can do this – credit card transactions, for instance (although there are security and privacy issues there, but let’s not worry about that for the moment).
Here at Bizyhood, we question the entire nature of the anonymous review. As a user of many of these sites, I personally don’t see the value. If I know nothing about the person giving the review, how do I establish the baseline of that reviewer’s perspective? I have some friends whose sensibilities are so different than mine, if they told me to avoid a particular restaurant, I’d likely go. Similarly, there are others whose recommendations I would rarely question, since their taste is impeccable. As a result, I would much prefer a smaller but knownnumber of reviews than any number of anonymous reviews. I’ll admit that a large number of anonymous reviews can provide a “signal” that is helpful when deciding between establishments, but how many people would pick a business based on any number of anonymous reviews compared to one solid review from somebody whose opinion you trust?
Bizyhood has established this baseline as a starting point. It isn’t required (yet), but we strongly prefer that you connect Bizyhood with your Facebook and/or Google+ credentials, because we feel that you, your network and the businesses you frequent will benefit from knowing that it was you that gave a review – regardless of whether it was effusively positive or was some serious constructive criticism. We want you saying the same thing on Bizyhood that you would say to the owner in person. If that becomes the baseline for how communication is established, you have trust right from the get-go… something Yelp says they want but the actions don’t seem to follow their words.