In this digital age, purchasing decisions are increasingly driven by online reviews and ratings. Each year, more and more people are turning to the Internet as the very first step in deciding what to buy and who to hire, inevitably finding – or even specifically in search of – feedback from other customers.
Many popular consumer review websites, such as Google and Yelp, allow their users to publish reviews to both comment on their experience and assign a rating to the business.
The one-star (worst) to five-star (best) rating scale is most commonly used. The separate ratings from each individual review are then aggregated into an average star-rating which purports to represent an honest and fair assessment of the business and the products or services it sells.
That average star-rating becomes a more powerful and influential statement than any individual review can offer. Anything less than a stellar rating will unavoidably result in lost profits.
Unfortunately, despite their critical importance, average star-ratings are far too easily manipulated and frequently weaponized. On most websites, the verification process is weak at best or, all too often, completely non-existent. The reviews can be and usually are published anonymously or under a pseudonym without any way for the business to verify that the author is an actual customer.
Currently, there is a troubling lack of safeguards preventing a competitor or ex-employee from publishing a negative review while masquerading as a disgruntled customer, falsely recounting some horrific marketplace interaction which never occurred. Moreover, there are no effective measures preventing such people from registering 10 separate accounts and publishing 10 separate reviews, deceptively pretending to be 10 separate dissatisfied customers.
While most websites have terms of service in place which prohibit defamatory (false) statements, none of them actively enforce those rules. Simply put, the websites do not want to play referee on what is true and what is false. Instead, you will likely be directed to obtain a court order to remove content against the author if you want the website to remove what you believe to be a defamatory review.
For any review which includes false commentary, there is at least a general framework guiding the legal implications which arise from that review. In those situations, courts have typically applied traditional defamation law principles.
This article addresses the more novel questions surrounding the reviews which give a poor rating, usually a “one-star”, but include no additional commentary.
On its face, a one-star review with no commentary would suggest nothing more than a statement of opinion. Similar to truthful factual statements, opinions are almost always accorded full protection under the First Amendment (free speech).
To be clear, in nearly all situations, a single one-star review published by an actual customer cannot be defamatory, no matter how unfair it is for the customer to hold that opinion of the business. But what if the author was never a customer and has no legitimate basis to offer an opinion? What if the author has ulterior motives and/or has misrepresented his/her capacity? What if an actual customer pretends to be multiple customers, all holding the same negative opinion of the business?
With any anonymous online reviews, there are too many unanswered questions to cast any legal analysis in absolutes. One-star reviews are certainly no exception.
Below, we will delve deeper into the one-star review dilemma and discuss best practices for dealing with them and protecting your business.
How Can One-Star Reviews Harm My Business?
One of the easiest and most effective ways to harm a business is to cause a drop in its average star-rating. That rating is often the first impression which dictates whether a potential customer will give any further consideration to the business’s services or products.
Star-ratings can also affect how highly a business ranks in online searches for businesses in the same industry. For example, if you operate a plumbing business and someone conducts a Google search for “plumbers” in your area, Google can provide a list of nearby businesses. The higher your average star-rating, the higher your business will appear on that list and, consequentially, the more likely the potential client will contact you.
The bottom line is — star-ratings are vital to your bottom line. If your overall rating or the rating for one of your products is low, would-be customers will either never find you or simply pass you by.
Worse yet, you will never know how many customers you have lost. No one will ever tell you they would have purchased your product or services if not for the unimpressive online rating which caused them to dismiss you without a second thought.
Can I Sue Over a One-Star Review?
A single one-star review with no additional commentary does not afford many legal options, especially if you do not already know the identity and capacity of the author. But a series of suspicious and seemingly connected anonymous one-star reviews may be actionable, even if the reviews contain no commentary or other statements beyond the star rating.
For a statement of opinion to be protected, there must be a reasonably legitimate basis for the opinion. Individuals who have had no marketplace interaction with a business have no basis to offer a legitimate opinion on that business. Additionally, while an individual can legitimately have an opinion of a business, that person cannot masquerade as multiple customers also having the same negative opinion of a business.
Representations as to capacity may be critical here. For instance, a competitor can offer its legitimate opinion of your product or service, but must do so in its capacity as a competitor, not pretending to be a disinterested customer. Similarly, a jaded lover is not an employee or customer, and cannot purport to provide the legitimate opinion of someone in either of those capacities.
Other limited exceptions certainly would apply. An employee or ex-employee may be contractually prohibited from publishing a negative opinion of the business due to a non-disparagement or some provision of an employment or separation agreement. Professionals may face some additional ethical restrictions commenting on other members in the same profession.
Actual customers can potentially abuse and lose their protected status and privilege defense if, for instance, they engage in deception and fraud (e.g. masquerading as multiple customers) or if they use a review to extort the business for a refund or free service.
In summary, while one-star reviews are generally considered expressions of opinion and not actionable, the more complete and accurate answer to the question of whether you can sue over a one-star review is that it depends on a variety of often unknown elements which require careful review and investigation.
What Can & Should Be Done About One-Star Reviews
The Customer Service Approach
If faced with a single review published by an actual customer, do not aggressively respond to that customer no matter whether you think that opinion of your business is justified. Attempt to resolve the issue through traditional customer service methods.
If the customer’s identity is known, reach out privately before publicly responding to the review on the website. If it is a single review published through an anonymous account, see what you can learn about the user account and its other activity to glean any patterns which could lead to suspicions about identity and capacity.
While conducting this investigation and to mitigate damages, consider responding to the review with an offer to discuss and resolve the customer’s complaint. Do not rule out the possibility that the review was published by mistake, something akin to a “butt-dial.” This can be easily rectified by posting a response which would bring this to the user’s attention
Reporting Multiple Suspicious Reviews to the Website
If you encounter a series of one-star reviews, look for commonalities in the user accounts, such as:
- Only one contribution to the platform from each account;
- Similar usernames;
- Reviews of same or similar business, especially any competitors; or
- Some regularity or pattern in the timing of the reviews which would indicate the reviews are all part of a common scheme and design.
You can find more information on identifying fake online reviews in our detailed blog post “How to Spot a Fake Review.”
If the misuse of these accounts is very apparent, you can try to contact the website and ask if it would internally examine the user account data for any suspiciously common data points, such as the same or closely related Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or registration information.
Most websites have a flagging process to initiate the conversation. For example, businesses can flag fake Google reviews in Google Maps or from the dashboard of their Google My Business profile. However, in doing so, understand that the website itself cannot be held liable for something one or many of its users published.
Litigation as a Last Resort
Should all self-help efforts fail, consider speaking to an experienced Internet defamation attorney about your litigation options to ‘unmask’ and sue the individual(s) responsible.
Your attorney will evaluate the situation and consider whether there is a valid cause of action for defamation or some other alternative legal claim to defamation available.
If your attorney determines that a lawsuit is a viable option, a John Doe lawsuit can be initiated against the anonymous reviewer(s). John Doe lawsuits are used when you do not know the identity of the party or parties you are suing at the time you file your case.
During all of this, you should both carefully preserve all evidence and document any damages.
|Tips for preservation of evidence
||Tips for documentation of damages
|Screenshot or print each suspicious review;
||Monitor your average star-rating and any drops which result;
|Save the URL (web address) for the review and the user account from which it was published;
||Make a record of any cancelled orders, appointments, or other transactions which may have resulted from the publication of the review;
|Screenshot or print other reviews through the same user account;
||Keep track of your time and expenses incurred as a result of the review;
|Screenshot or print where the review may appear in your search results;
||Keep track of your time and expenses incurred as a result of the review;
|Save any alerts you receive from the website or elsewhere relative to the review.
Work With Minc Law to Remove Fake Online Reviews
Whether anonymous one-star reviews are defamatory is a question that cannot be definitively answered unless the identity and capacity of the author or authors is known. At Minc Law, our attorneys have successfully helped our clients navigate the complexities that come with legal actions to identify anonymous online posters and compel the removal of fake online reviews.
“From the moment we sat down and met with Aaron, he quickly understood the complexities of the situation. Aaron responded quickly and clearly to any questions that arose. His staff worked diligently to preserve all relevant data. We also worked with Dan extensively. Dan was extremely professional and upfront, and he developed a real understanding of all elements of the case. He even worked late into the night when necessary to make sure everything was just right. I would highly recommend that anyone dealing with online defamation should trust the Minc team to resolve their issue.”
Bob, April 12th 2018
If you believe you are a victim of fake one-star online reviews, contact the experienced attorneys at Minc Law to evaluate your case by calling us at (216) 373-7706, filling out our online contact form, or speaking with a Chat representative.