142 million users visit Yelp every month. According to a study by FreshChalk, Yelp appears in the top five search results for 92% of Google web queries that consist of a city and business category. It’s dominance in local, location-based searches are rivaled only by Google and every business owner must consider the influence of Yelp when developing its online marketing strategy.
Yelp was founded in San Francisco in July 2004. It is one of the most successful local business listing sites in the world. Millions of consumers visit Yelp every day to “discover, connect, and transact with local businesses of all sizes.”
Yelp enjoys high visibility on Google and other search engines and as of March 2020 hosts customer 211 million reviews. The most popular review categories on Yelp include:
Business owners can claim their business on Yelp and can respond to customer reviews via a direct message, or post a public comment.
Online defamation or cyber libel is a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published “with fault” — as a result of negligence or malice. If someone writes a review about a visit to a restaurant and complains that about slow service, high prices, small portions, or a rude waiter, it is unlikely to meet the definition of defamation — opinions are not defamatory.
However, if the reviewer claims that there was a racial slur written on the bill or that his or her credit card was stolen by the busboy and used to purchase an iPhone, these are facts that can be proven or disproven, and if proven false, can establish a cause of action for defamation.
The elements of defamation are a publication to someone other than the person defamed (an online post or review would meet this publication requirement); a false statement of fact; that is understood as being of and concerning the individual or business bringing the claim; and tending to harm the reputation of the individual or business bringing the claim.
It is very difficult to generate positive reviews on Yelp because Yelp’s Content Guidelines state that businesses should not ask for Yelp reviews. Yelp would much prefer business owners to pay to advertise on its platform, rather than passively enjoy the marketing benefits of a positive Yelp rating. Yelp discourages efforts by business owners to boost its ratings by penalizing companies that run contests, surveys, discounts or other incentives to leave reviews.
In a 2017 blog post, Yelp’s Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Communications and Public Affairs explained that “Yelp does not want businesses to ask their customers to write reviews and our recommendation software actively targets reviews that have been solicited.”
Yelp uses a proprietary algorithm to determine which customer reviews to recommend to its users. Over the years, many business owners claim that Yelp favors negative reviews over positive reviews.
According to Yelp, 50% of the customer reviews on its platform are 5-star reviews compared to only 17% 1-star reviews. However, this is cold comfort for a business with a 1-star rating.
A business owner can report a review that he or she believes is false or defamatory or otherwise violates Yelp’s guidelines. Yelp moderators will remove a review that includes “threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, and other displays of bigotry.”
22% of all reviews on Yelp are Not Recommended, Yelp does not include Not Recommended reviews in calculating the overall rating for the business, and a Not Recommended review is not publicly displayed alongside Recommended reviews.
For most business owners, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act means that they must first initiate a legal action against the (usually anonymous) reviewer and obtain a court order declaring the review defamatory and then submit a copy of the court order to Yelp for removal.
The Communications Decency Act (CDA), specifically section 230, provides broad protections from liability for transmitting or removing user-generated content, which is why social media and business review sites like Yelp are able to host content — even false and defamatory content without risk of liability. Courts have said that if a service provider “passively displays content that is created entirely by third parties,” Section 230 immunity will apply.
Yelp has been very successful defending itself from lawsuits brought by businesses who are angry about a damaging negative review. In 2018, the California Supreme Court overturned an appellate court ruling that would have forced Yelp to remove unflattering reviews of a law firm. Yelp avoided liability as publisher by relying on Section 230 of the CDA.
It is worthwhile to share a brief excerpt from the dissent written by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar in this case, who said the majority “runs the risk of misjudging the consequences of implying, in the early 21st century, that protections from libel, defamation, so-called ‘revenge porn,’ and similar actions are plenty available except, of course, where they arguably matter most: on the digital network that gives a lone voice in the public square a megaphone loud enough to be heard in the most remote corners of the planet.”
However, history is written by the winners and in this case, as in most others brought against Yelp, the company has avoided any responsibility for the irresponsible posts and reviews written by its millions of users.
Fair Use permits the unlicensed use of copyright-protected content. It is why a Yelp user can create a business listing for your company without your permission. It is why a Yelp user can include a photo of your storefront or menu without your permission. In determining fair use, a court would consider:
Because of the doctrine of fair use, it is very difficult, but not impossible, to claim a copyright interest to content posted to Yelp without the copyright owner’s permission.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) provides a safe harbor from copyright infringement liability for online service providers like Yelp for user-generated content posted on its website.
When a copyright owner’s work is being infringed on Yelp, the copyright owner may send a takedown notice to Yelp’s designated agent. For takedown notices to be legally effective, they must be provided to a service provider’s designated agent in writing and include substantially the following:
A physical or electronic signature of a person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.
1. A physical or electronic signature of a person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.
2. Identification of the copyrighted work claimed to have been infringed, or, if multiple copyrighted works at a single online site are covered by a single notification, a representative list of such works at that site.
3. Identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity and that is to be removed or access to which is to be disabled, and information reasonably sufficient to permit the service provider to locate the material.
4. Information reasonably sufficient to permit the service provider to contact the complaining party, such as an address, telephone number, and, if available, an electronic mail address at which the complaining party may be contacted.
5. A statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.
A statement that the information in the notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.
To report copyright or trademark infringement on Yelp, visit the Yelp Support Center and fill out the form provided and provide any additional information about the infringing content. Yelp’s Support team will determine whether to remove the infringing content.
7% of all reviews posted on Yelp are removed by Yelp. Some Yelp reviews are removed pursuant to a court order, some are reviewed pursuant to a successful DMCA takedown notification, and some are removed because they violate Yelp’s Community Guidelines or Terms of Service. Other Yelp reviews are removed with the assistance of an online reputation management company.
Reputation Rhino has helped thousands of business owners better understand how Yelp works and how to remove a Yelp review.
Our experienced online reputation management professionals can successfully and confidentially negotiate the removal of negative Yelp reviews with individual users or coordinate the removal of negative reviews with Yelp’s Support Team.
We can help you implement a highly effective process for obtaining positive customer reviews on Yelp and other relevant review sites.