Online reviews have a pretty big impact on consumer behavior as well as business reputation. They have the power to shape decisions on where to go (and where not to go), and they are a major factor in a business’ ability to attract customers (as well as drive them away).
In fact, here at ReviewTrackers we recently did some research on the impact of online reviews on restaurants, and we found that 33 percent of frequent restaurant-goers wouldn’t even eat in a place with an overall rating that falls below 4 stars out of 5 (on major review sites).
That says a lot about how reviews and ratings influence consumers, and it’s reasonable to assume that the same applies for other industries and sectors, too, like automotive, medical and healthcare, hospitality, legal services, financial services, and housing and real estate (among others).
SLAPP: Silencing the voice of the customer
It therefore comes to no surprise that reviews also stir up a lot of controversy – in the legal arena, specifically. For example, business owners and interest groups have pushed for the advancement of something called SLAPP: short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
SLAPP is defined as a lawsuit that’s intended to “censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” This would, of course, include critics who write online reviews.
A SLAPP can be a libel or defamation lawsuit against a person who wrote a one-star Yelp review. Or it can be an essentially meritless suit that’s designed simply to force critics to spend time and money defending themselves. It can also include legal attempts to unmask anonymous critics, as well as to find courts and areas of jurisdiction that are more favorable towards the SLAPP’s claims than wherever the defendant happens to live (also called “forum shopping”).
SLAPPs are typically meant to silence the voice of the customer and prevent negative comments, criticism, and reviews that could adversely affect a business’ reputation. So, if a customer writes a snarky review of a local business on Yelp or TripAdvisor, he or she is doing so at the risk of getting – we daresay – “SLAPPed”.
Speak Free and Consumer Review Freedom Acts vs. SLAPPs
A number of consumer support groups, freedom of speech advocates, and online review sites (like Yelp, most notably) believe that SLAPPs pervert the legal system. And that’s why they’re taking a stand.
With close to half of the states in the US having no protection at all against SLAPPs, moves have been made recently to prevent consumers from being sued by businesses for writing negative reviews and commentary.
These include the Speak Free Act of 2015, a law that’s designed to strengthen First Amendment rights and protect Americans from meritless lawsuits such as the ones that SLAPPs are precisely meant to enable.
One of the Speak Free Act’s staunchest supporters: Yelp, which is no stranger to legal battles and controversies featuring its review-writing users and, on the other end, frustrated local business owners.
“Whether people are expressing their opinions in the form of a consumer review, an editorial in a newspaper, or commentary on a blog, it’s important that they not be bullied into retracting their criticism,” wrote Laurent Crenshaw, Public Policy for Yelp.
“The Speak Free Act will allow federal courts nationwide to determine whether a lawsuit targeting speech is a SLAPP. For those living in states still lacking an effective anti-SLAPP law this will provide a robust way to fight abusive litigation at the federal level. Plus, it will allow defendants who prevail on an anti-SLAPP motion to collect attorney fees from the plaintiff to make up for the financial burden of having been targeted with a meritless lawsuit in the first place.”
Added Public Participation Project (PPP) Board Chairman Eric Goldman: “Society benefits when consumers share their critical consumer reviews and social media complaints, but those negative comments often trigger strongly-worded legal threats. Anti-SLAPP laws tell consumers that they can ignore bullying tactics, which helps keep this socially important content from being scrubbed from the Internet.”
Another newly introduced piece of legislation is the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015, a federal bill that’s been passed to prevent ridiculous non-disparagement clauses that threaten people from writing anything negative about a company.
If you don’t know what we’re talking about, here are some examples of these ridiculous clauses:
The first one – the one with the “Social Media Addendum” providing 10,000 reasons not to write a negative review – comes from a Florida apartment complex that obviously only wanted tenants who praised the place. (You can read more about that here.)
The second one is from a wedding supply vendor’s contract, which tried to ban bride and groom from “encouraging” negative feedback.
“Too often, a consumer shares a negative customer service experience with others, then learns that according to the fine print in the boilerplate contract, he may not criticize the business publicly, including writing an online review,” said Scott Michelman of consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen. “Companies use these unjust terms to bully dissatisfied customers into silence.”
Here at ReviewTrackers, we encourage businesses to apply best practices in managing online reviews. By that, we mean not resorting to legal action just to prevent criticism and negative feedback on public forums like online review sites.
There are better, more sustainable, and more effective ways to protect your business reputation. For tips and ideas on how to get started, send us a message and we’ll show you how to improve your reviews, ratings, and reputation – with zero need to SLAPP your customers.