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“Help! A Bad Review is Ruining My Business. What Can I Do?”

yelpBad reviews can leave a nasty mark on a business’s online presence. But sometimes, bad reviews can show up even when the business has done nothing wrong, simply because the reviewer, for reasons and motivations unknown, wants to inflict unnecessary damage on the business to be spiteful.  As every business knows, there are some customers that will simply never be happy and one bad client is worse than a thousand good customers. What’s the best way to deal with bad reviews? Here are some suggestions.

Is it Worth an Attempt to Work it Out with the Customer?
Most  reputation-repair websites suggest that business owners try to work out the dispute with the customer by contacting them and asking what it would take to make the customer happy. But this assumes that the customer’s expectations are realistic or the demands feasible… which is not always the case. The business owner can be left sometimes wondering how far backwards they should bend simply to have the negative review taken down. This can cause the business owner to feel as though the business is being taken advantage of by a customer that is exerting unfair leverage on the business.  Some business owners  in industries or fields in which reviews are infrequently left by customers can feel devastated by the bad review. The icing on the cake is often getting sales calls from the review site’s sales representatives, who will offer to help bury the review deeper on the business’s review landing page, if the business wants to buy an advertising package starting at $500 per month or more. How does a business choose between a series of bad apples?

Practical Strategies
There are basically three ways to deal with a bad review: 1) attempt to drown it out through favorable reviews and content; 2) convincing the review site that the review violates the terms of use and must be taken down; or 3) take legal action.

Drowning Out Bad Reviews
Attempting to counterbalance a bad review with favorable reviewers can be an infuriating experience for business owners. Yelp’s filter, for example, detects when a number of positive reviews are made in a short period of time, especially by individuals who do not write a lot of reviews, and the positive reviews usually all end up landing in the “unrecommended reviews” section, not factoring into the business’s overall rating.  “What’s the point of getting good reviews, if they are all hidden,” has lamented many a business owner.  But remember that review sites are not neutral informative review sites intended to provide customers with all information – they are advertising outlets that make money by charging businesses to provide more control about the information posted on their sites about the business.

Takedown for Violation of Terms of Use
The easiest and best weapon a business owner has in taking down a negative review is in alleging that the content violates the terms of use of the review site. If the review goes too far, contains harassing content, profanity, references to private or personal information of the business owner or its employees, or attempts to extort the business (i.e., “refund me all of my money or I will leave you a negative review,” the business may have grounds to have the review taken down for violating the review site’s terms of service.  Before the business owner takes legal action, it is always worthwhile to try to have the review removed by the review site in this manner.

Other Options and Legal Action

If the review is wreaking havoc on the business’s online reputation and the review site refuses to take down the review, the business can always enlist the help of an attorney. Except for certain circumstances, i.e., truly defamatory content that contains false allegations of criminal, lewd, etc. conduct, false accusations of mental illness, or a communicable disease, or personal attacks on the business owner, it is generally not possible to sue for defamation of a consumer review that simply happens to be negative.

California courts allow consumer reviewers to raise a SLAPP defense if sued by a business, alleging that their review is protected free speech and that the business is retaliating against them by suing and that the lawsuit is really just a strategic lawsuit to curtain public participation in a public forum addressing issues of public importance. For example, a consumer review that criticizes a hotel for having a bedbug problem will probably be considered free speech.  Whether or not a review will be subject to a SLAPP defense is a gray area that will depend on the facts of each case and the exact language of the review in question.  In this respect, a defamation lawsuit can be a double-edged sword because, if the reviewer wins on the SLAPP defense, the Court will dismiss the case and order the business to pay all of the reviewer’s attorneys’ fees and costs. No business wants a defamation suit to backfire in this manner.

Meaningful Options
The above being said, it can be effective to enlist legal help to contact the client and attempt to negotiate some sort of mutually satisfactory resolution by which the review is taken down in exchange for X or Y. Sometimes, it can be difficult communicating and reasoning with a negative reviewer because there is bitterness and resentment between the business owner and the reviewer.  Bringing in a third party can help diffuse the situation and possibly lead to an outcome that both sides can live with.

Last Words
The business world is different than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Customer review sites are prevalent, and in a setting where every customer has a voice, sometimes that privilege is abused by customers that are unreasonable or have unrealistic expectation. Because the negative reviewers leave reviews at a greater rate than positive reviewers, a bad review can have a meaningful effect on a business that the business may struggle to deal with.

AXIS Legal Counsel represents clients in numerous types of defamation matters, including business defamation, online defamation, libel, , internet slander, false customer reviews, slander, and issuing aggressive takedown demands to websites hosting defamatory content. Axis’ managing attorney Rabeh M. A. Soofi is ranked as one of the “Top Women Lawyers of Southern California” by SuperLawyers Rising Stars, and counsels clients in need of legal counsel for defamation, slander, and libel matters.

For information on retaining AXIS Legal Counsel to represent you with respect to slander, libel, or defamation,  contact [email protected] or call (213) 403-0130 for a confidential consultation