1. The Basics: What is Angie’s List?

Founded in 1995, Angie’s List is a popular American home services website and online directory providing users with a platform to write and publish “crowd-sourced” reviews of contractors and local businesses. Originally a concentrated door-to-door effort by William S. Oesterle and Angie Hicks to get consumers to sign up and provide ratings of local contractors, Angie’s List grew to over 70,000 subscribers in 2013, and 3.2 million paid members in 2015.

Now, Angie’s List covers reviews across more than 720 business categories, boasts more than 10 million verified reviews, and revenue in excess of $350 million, making it one of the most popular online consumer review organizations on the Internet.

Defamation Law Fact: When searching for product and business reviews online, websites with anonymous reviews should trigger alarm bells. Although not all anonymous reviews are malicious, the lack of accountability and invincibility perceived behind an anonymous veil leads to a higher likelihood of users posting false and defamatory content.

Angie’s List differs from other online review sites because it began as a subscription-only review site, leading to more accurate and trustworthy content and information. However, in July 2016, Angie’s List added a free membership option for users. Angie’s List users and members are able to rate and grade companies using a report-card-style system, ranging from A to F.

2. Angie’s List Rating Criteria

Distinct from other popular online consumer review sites, Angie’s List does not allow for anonymous reviews, significantly weeding out malicious internet trolls and outsourced SEO review firms aiming to sabotage a business’s reputation. When assessing user reviews, their  A to F rating algorithm takes several qualitative factors into consideration, specifically;

  • Price,
  • Quality,
  • Professionalism,
  • Responsiveness, and
  • Punctuality.

Angie’s List has a ‘Membership Bill of Rights,’ which provides a set of guidelines and user policies for all members. It confers members the right to share honest reviews and opinions of businesses at any time. Additionally, they state they try to ensure users and members produce accurate information. “Before they’re posted, all reviews are checked in order to guard against providers and companies that try to report on themselves or their competitors. This process was reviewed and approved during a 2012 audit by BPA Worldwide.”

Even with such protective and preventive measures in place, negative and libelous  reviews do occur, and can have a significant impact on a company or individual’s reputation. It is also worth noting that Angie’s List reviews have not been without criticism, as illustrated below.

Defamation Law Fact: Although founded in 1995, it wasn’t until 2015 that Angie’s List enjoyed their first profitable year. With an unprofitable past, and roughly 70% of their revenue coming from paid advertising, Angie’s List reviews lean towards being a pro-business review site, as opposed to a neutral third-party.

3. How Trustworthy are Angie’s List Reviews?

One would think with their subscription based membership, Angie’s List reviews would carry more authority and be more trustworthy. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

 

Downtown Chicago

Resolving Disputes Between Customers and Business on Angie’s List

In 2013, newspaper reporter and columnist, David Segal documented his complicated and drawn out interaction with Angie’s List after leaving a negative review about a Massachusetts contractor. After begrudgingly receiving a refund from the contractor, having the check bounce, requesting another valid check be sent, and finally receiving a proper refund, it was evident the company at issue was not taking the process seriously.

Not long after the (second) refund, Segal noticed any trace of his original review had been removed from Angie’s List. Now, next to the “disputes” section on the contractor’s Angie’s List scorecard, where details of the dispute once stood, was a blank slate indicating there were “zero” past or present disputes. Without the ability to tell if a business or contractor previously had a documented and reported dispute, reliability of the site’s transparency and reviews significantly decreases.

Additionally, Segal was informed of Angie’s List pro-business and contractor policy allowing only an A or B rating upon re-review after a dispute resolution.  

Defamation Law Fact: Make sure to screenshot, print, and take note of all search engine results and website pages that are relevant to your defamation claim. Be sure to save the document in electronic form, due to a popular defense and refutation that a printed copy is different from the electronic version and thus, irrelevant.

3 Issues Affecting Angie’s List Review Trustworthiness

Although Angie’s List strives for transparency and legitimacy through their subscription requirement and prohibited anonymous reviews, there are several key issues that plague their trustworthiness, opening you or your business up to unregulated, false, and malicious user reviews.

  • Advertising: Similar to Yelp and other online review sites, Angie’s List accepts advertising dollars from the very local businesses they review. Roughly 70% of the company’s revenue is estimated to come from advertising. On its face, there is nothing wrong with company’s accepting advertising dollars, but it does call into question their ability to act as a neutral third-party facilitator of unbiased reviews. Businesses looking to advertise on Angie’s List can pay to appear higher up in their search results. Full transparency, where all positive and negative reviews are included, poses a dangerous threat to Angie’s List profitability. Post the good and the bad, and they risk local businesses pulling advertising.
  • Expunged Negative Reviews: Segal’s New York Times piece harped on the opaque review practices employed by Angie’s List. After an Angie’s List business or contractor “resolves” a customer dispute, the original review is completely deleted. Businesses that have had a single bad review, or hundreds, no longer bear a scarlet letter of dissatisfaction, making the process of finding out a company’s true business history very difficult.
  • Inflated Reviews: After a “resolved” dispute, Angie’s List asks users to re-review the business, but, this time around, imposes a minimum rating of a ‘B’.The rationale for this policy is misinformed, as not all disputes are dealt with in a timely or professional manner. If Angie’s List was truly interested in creating transparency and giving a complete picture of businesses to potential customers, they would keep all instances of conduct on record.   

Angie’s List reviews fail to give a clear and complete picture of a company’s past issues, allowing for a company that has had potentially hundreds of complaints lodged against them, and later resolved, removed altogether.

If you need help determining whether a post or review about you or your business crosses the line into defamatory territory, reach out to Aaron Minc, an experienced Defamation Removal Lawyer. Aaron will help you assess your options and formulate an effective takedown game-plan. You can reach him at (216) 373-7706 , or schedule a meeting online.

Angie’s List Certified, Yet Legally Unlicensed

Additionally, an NBC Chicago news investigation found a disturbing discrepancy between Angie’s List certified businesses and the actual licensing credentials of Chicago contractors and businesses. Of the 55 Chicago home repair contractors and businesses investigated in their report, NBC Chicago alarmingly noted that only 12 of them were legitimately licensed, calling into question Angie’s List overall vetting procedures.

Angie’s List Chicago has been the subject of strict scrutiny after the revelation of countless “too-good-to-be-true” contractor and business deals. With the promotion of businesses engaged in the practice of undercutting legitimately licensed and regulated businesses and contractors, Angie’s List opens itself up to higher degree of vulnerability.

Such “black market” contractors and businesses may slip under the watchful eye of official business regulatory bodies, and slowly chip away at the livelihood of real businesses. It is also worth noting that an unregulated business may feel a greater sense of invincibility and anonymity, allowing them to successfully sabotage competitors by posting defamatory or false reviews.

Angie’s List reviews fail to give a clear and complete picture of a company’s past issues, allowing for a company that has had potentially hundreds of complaints lodged against them, and later resolved, removed altogether.

Defamation Law Fact: Angie’s List, often referred to as “the grandma” of online review sites, receives over 60,000 reviews by users per month.

4. Removing Defamatory Content From Internet Sites Like Angie’s list

Most people are under the belief that once something has been posted on the Internet, that it’s impossible to remove and forever ingrained in digital form. Some sites claim they are impervious to lawsuits for content they post, claiming that posting certain content is protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Although this may sometimes be true, in certain cases, defamatory and false content may be removed.

Persons and businesses that have been libeled, defamed, and maliciously attacked on the Internet, have effective legal recourse in order to restore their reputation and livelihood.

Defamation Law Fact: If you want offensive and malicious content removed immediately, reaching out to a defamation removal attorney and having them send a cease and desist to the offending party is a cheap and effective alternative to litigation. Sending a cease and desist lets them know you’re serious, and can save potentially thousands of dollars in litigation costs.

Website Liability and Exceptions to the Communications and Decency Act

Although websites and third party online service providers are provided a great deal of protection under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), there are several notable exceptions users and injured parties may rely on in order to remove defamatory and false content.

  • Intellectual Property Claims:  Under the CDA, websites and other online service providers are not absolutely immune from lawsuits for certain types of content. Claims for copyright and trademark infringement, and other intellectual property related claims are generally not covered by CDA immunity. Websites and other online service providers who are given notice of intellectual property violations on their site, such as the posting of a copyrighted image, are required to promptly remove the offending piece.
  • Criminal Law Violations: Although straightforward, websites and online service providers are not immune from criminal liability. Local, state, and federal laws enforce criminal acts and are a common exception to the CDA. Specifically, the CDA emphasizes that content related to obscenity, the sexual exploitation of children, and any other Federal criminal statutes, are not exempt from liability.
  • Editing Content That Materially Alters Its Meaning: When a third party online service provider departs from its role as merely a facilitator of third party online reviews and content, it opens itself up to liability. Think of website providers who edit and add original content similar to book publishers. Book publishers have the requisite opportunity, knowledge, and ability to utilize editorial control over the book’s contents. Book publishers are liable, while the distributors are not. Distributors include bookstores, libraries, and newsstands. Websites are not liable when they act as a distributor of information, as they have added no original content or additions to the reviews. When assessing your claim for the removal of a defamatory review, first look to see which party can be held liable, as it is often easier to go after a large website with known contact information, instead of subpoenaing an individual user’s IP address.
  • Promissory Estoppel: Promissory estoppel is a common legal principle binding a promise made by one part when the other party detrimentally relies on that promise. Websites and online service providers may, by explicit contract or promise, waive their immunity under the CDA, and be estopped, or prevented, from going back on that promise. Simply put, if a website provider signs a contract stating they forfeit their protection under the CDA, they will be later prohibited from relying on the CDA as a protective shield and may be sued for the false and defamatory content posted on their site.  Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc., 570 F.3d 1096 (9th Cir. 2009); Scott P. v. Craigslist, Inc., CGC-10-496687 (Cal. Superior Ct. June 2, 2010). For a short explanation of Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc, please see below.
  • Encouragement To Post Illegal Content: If a website encourages users to post illegal content on their website, they will be barred from claiming protection under the CDA. Two separate federal appeals courts have upheld this exemption, finding that websites are not entitled to the protections granted under the CDA due to public policy and general criminal law principles.

Other Methods For Removing Defamatory Content From Websites

Finding an exception to the Communications Decency Act isn’t always needed. Oftentimes, reaching out to the website can be an effective means for removal, saving time and costs. Below are two popular methods for removing defamatory content without having to dig deep into the intricacies and loopholes of the CDA.

  • Voluntary Removal By The Website: A simple and straightforward solution to removing false and malicious reviews about your business, or company, from a website is by contacting them directly. When contacting the website, be sure to point to a relevant clause or section of their user agreement that is being directly violated. Reaching out to the website isn’t always effective, especially if they are well known and high traffic websites. Before sending an email, first acquaint yourself with their removal policies, as some websites guarantee automatic and swift removal, no matter the issue. It is in their best interest to keep users and customers happy, so when confronted with false and malicious postings online, first step back and consider proceeding down the “obvious route,” and reach out directly.
  • A Court Ordered Removal From Search Engine Indices: Even when websites and third party online service providers state they won’t remove content, comments, or reviews on their site, don’t fear. There is an effective, yet rarely employed strategy available; a court order requiring a website’s URL be taken down from search engine results. Contacting an experienced defamation removal attorney is an effective way to formulate a strategy to successfully remove the offensive content.

Defamation Law Fact: When determining what parties you can and can’t hold liable for defamation, look to see if the website where the offending content was published made an explicit promise to protect users, as they may be exempt from protection under the CDA and liable.

Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc. and the Waiver of CDA Immunity

Although Barnes v. Yahoo!, Inc affirmed the immunity granted to third party service providers under the CDA, it also adjudicated on whether those providers could escape liability after making an explicit promise to an injured user and later renege on that promise.

After an ex-boyfriend created fake Yahoo profiles, including nude photographs, Cecilia Barnes brought a claim against Yahoo alleging they negligently failed to remove them. Although her claim was initially denied under the CDA, because any employee promised her the content would be removed, and her reliance on that promise, the court held that section 230 of the CDA didn’t grant immunity to Yahoo when facing a promissory estoppel claim.

The court held, “Yahoo made a promise with the constructive intent that it be enforceable, it has implicitly agreed to an alteration in such baseline,” the “baseline” being their immunity granted under the CDA.

Defamation Law Fact: When determining the trustworthiness of reviews, look to reviews that are directly tied to a personal account. A Consumer Reports survey cited Google+ reviews as one of the most trustworthy sources for reviews due to being linked to a real name and (presumably) picture.

5. Reach Out to Defamation Removal Attorneys to Remove False and Embarrassing Posts from Angie’s List

While sites like Angie’s List and other user-generated sites claim to have a proper system of checks and balances in place to vet and remove false and defamatory reviews, the reality is, it isn’t very effective. It may seem daunting to go after a site who claims immunity under the Communications Decency Act, but there are exceptions and efficient methods for experienced defamation removal attorneys to remove such content.

Aaron Minc and the lawyers of Minc LLC understand the damaging effects negative and false reviews can have on you and your business’s reputation. At Minc LLC, we guarantee the removal of the offending post from sites like Angie’s List and other online third party service providers, or will refund your money.

To schedule a free, no-obligation initial consultation, call (216) 373-7706 , or schedule a meeting online today.