Punks jump up to get SLAPPed down: be careful on Yelp

Artist’s rendering of the potential legal decision. via SodaHead

We’ve all read Yelp reviews that seem to be written by the most petulant, entitled people on the face of the Earth. You know, the ones that go “The food was great and the atmosphere was wonderful, but the waiter coughed a couple of times and I didn’t really care for his beard, so I won’t be coming here again and you should avoid it.” Apparently people actually take these things seriously? And even go to court over it sometimes? Apparently they do, because a Virginia woman is facing a $750,000 defamation lawsuit for a Yelp review of a development company that they claim is libelous and damaging to their business.

While the case is only just getting to court, the presiding judge has ruled that the woman has to tone down her review or things are going to end up getting to the point where she may have to actually pay 3/4 of a million bucks to the company that feels wronged. Legal observers are worried that the suit is a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit, or one that seeks to silence people through sheer legal might, but business groups point to the fact that people now use Yelp reviews to make decisions that could effect a company’s bottom line.

And wouldn’t you know, somehow they’re right. Another TechCrunch story shows that a half-star increase in a restaurant’s page makes it 30 to 49 percent more likely that they’ll sell out for the night. So obviously things can work the other way too.

The free speech issues inherent in this case are important no doubt, but what’s more important is that apparently people are really using Yelp reviews as a barometer of where to eat and get drinks? Guys, come on. Yelp is good for things like addresses, hours and other assorted hard info, but we’re really going to trust our social lives to a bunch of poorly written reviews from total strangers? Or am I the only one left that reads the reviews for laffs? Either way, next time you’re angry at a bar for kicking you out out, keep in mind that your one star review could get you hauled into court.

3 Comment

  • Do people seriously not use Yelp reviews now?

    I certainly do read the ones you mention, the ones where they pick one thing they hated on their one visit and never come back.

    Yet, if I’m looking for a place to go, and want an idea of what’s good on the menu…of course I use Yelp reviews.

  • Agree. I believe (some) regular people more than the professional restaurant reviews, especially if it’s a city I don’t know. But within reason. You can tell when someone is just a Yelp jerk.

    I have so many questions about this case. Are the businesses considered public figures? Can they prove the reviews are “false statement of fact” as opposed to opinion? My first amendment policy issue spotting mechanism is screaming “chilling effect” so I’m thinking the businesses will likely be SOL in all but the most extreme and blatantly malicious cases.

  • Who looks at Yelp for “hard info?” I don’t find it particularly helpful in that regard, especially considering the happy hour section only says “yes” or “no” rather than, say, what the special is. Isn’t that all the hard info we really need?

    I often check yelp reviews before going to a restaurant, and yes I am more likely to go to a 4 star restaurant than a 3 star restaurant because I doubt 300 people (or whatever) all got it wrong, and in my experience the quality matches the yelp rating. Recently had to go to dinner in midtown east, and, out of a lack of decent alternative, chose a 3 star restaurant I’d been to before. The service was subpar and I’m glad that with reviews I can at least know what I’m in for.