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The Yelp Question: Are Free Online Reviews Good?

By Minara El-Rahman | Last updated on

The whole concept of free online reviews is great in theory. It could be a way for your small business to build a customer base without expending too much money on marketing. However, it can also lead to unwanted legal problems. Inc. recently wrote about the dangers of the Yelp reviewer. Small business owners can open up a legal can of worms if they try to fight negative online reviews. Here are some of the current legal issues facing small business owners with Yelp and other free online reviews of small businesses.

Inc. wrote about how one small business owner named Diane Goodman got into legal trouble. She wrote messages to a negative reviewer which then culminated into a physical altercation. The result? Ms. Goodman was charged with assault and battery. She was also remanded to San Francisco General Hospital for a mental health evaluation.  

While this is an unusual situation, all small business owners can take note of it. Do not try to locate negative reviewers and confront them. If you choose to message them, do not threaten them. Be more proactive by addressing that customer's concerns.

Don't Get Bullied to Buy Ads

Yelp recently added Yelp for Business Owners which allows business owners to edit their company profiles, message reviewers privately, and post offers to their businesses on their Yelp profile. This is definitely good news for small business owners, but some small business owners paint a different picture about Yelp.

Some business owners claim that Yelp has removed their five star reviews. According to the New York Times, Yelp sometimes removes legitimate reviews in their efforts to remove fishy reviews. There have also been reports that Yelp promised to move or remove negative reviews for those who opt to advertise on Yelp.

While these are unsubstantiated claims, never feel obliged to buy ad space in order to make room for positive reviews.

Don't Astroturf

While you should not feel pressured to buy ads from an online reviews site, you should not attempt to post dummy reviews in order to draw customers to your small business either. The term "astroturfing" has been coined to describe this practice of artificially creating a positive online buzz about products and services.

While this is tempting, DON'T DO IT! It can cost you more than just your reputation. It can lead to legal liability: In New York, the cosmetic surgery corporation Lifestyle Lift had to pay $300,000 to settle claims regarding fake online reviews it posted about itself.

Yelp and Other Review Sites Are Not All Bad, Just Beware

Yelp can actually help small businesses get a leg up on the competition. Ms. Lauren Hart, who owns a salon called Roots told Inc. that her business has actually grown 148% since she started becoming active on her Yelp page. She claims that she has not had to advertise in the local paper anymore which saved her $400 a month. She also claims that she has not paid Yelp for advertising and that the only money she has spent on the site were for discounts and offers.

Brad Keeling, the owner of a chain of dry cleaners told Inc. that actually looking at online reviews has helped his business address ways to become better. He said: "Ignoring Yelp gets you nothing. You can't hate the future."

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