Yelp bills itself as an “online urban guide” – a crowdsourced local business review site. Consumers rate their experience(s) with a business, and the accumulated ratings and experiences are available to anyone (though you’ll need an account to actually submit a review). The company themselves isn’t particularly local though – with over 130 million unique visitors per day in over 20 languages, Yelp’s Alexa rank for May 2014 was a more than respectable 28. This is a company that may speak local but has definite range and scope for the exercise of power.
Yelp has long been dogged by allegations that they manipulate the rankings of businesses – either that they will remove negative reviews for businesses who purchase advertising or alternatively that a refusal to buy advertising could result in the disappearance of positive reviews. Finally, a group of small businesses filed suit against Yelp claiming that it was extorting small businesses into buying advertising.
Extortion, they say. When I think of extortion I think of blackmail. Organized crime. That sort of thing. A battle between a crowd-recommendation site and a variety of entrepreneurs seems a little…bloodless. (maybe my parents *did* let me read inappropriate materials – turns out the woman from the town library who called my mom to report me was right after all!)
Anyone reading the headlines after the case was dismissed might be excused for thinking that Yelp had been vindicated.
Well, the court didn’t exonerate Yelp. There was no finding here that the manipulation didn’t or couldn’t happen. Nope, the lawsuit was dismissed because….drum roll please….businesses don’t have a right to positive reviews online.
The business owners may deem the posting or order of user reviews as a threat of economic harm, but it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the three-judge panel. "As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.
Does it matter? Isn’t this just a battle between businesses? Well….no. Not necessarily. In a world of crowdsourcing and reputation, granting a business carte blanche to manipulate reviews is a scary prospect. An even scarier one is the idea that you might not have rights over your reviews/reputation.
(fear not RTBF-foes -- i'm not suggesting we should have the right to change, erase or otherwise manipulate such reviews....i'm just suggesting maybe nobody else should be able to do so either, especially with a view to harming me reputationally)