When Customer Reviews Are Defamatory

Discussion
Sep 13, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

Online customer reviews are proving particularly popular with consumers.
But one website that has particularly benefited from the practice, TripAdvisor,
is facing possible legal action over claims that its reviews are defamatory.

KwikChex.com,
a new service that helps companies manage online reputations, told Caterer
and Hotelkeeper
magazine that 105 out of 120 hotels and restaurants it
has contacted in both the U.S. and U.K. indicated they would be interested
in having their cases taken to TripAdvisor. Overall, 420 hotels and restaurants
have showed interest in being protected by KwikChex.com.

KwikChex.com co-founder
Chris Emmins told Caterer and Hotelkeeper said
that his company was prepared to launch a ‘group defamation action’ against
TripAdvisor unless the website took down reviews that were proven to be false,
defamatory or malicious. Grievances cited range from the appearance of reviews
that have been falsified by competitors or individuals, to unverified claims
of food poisoning, and unsubstantiated claims of theft or racism. Mr. Emmins
said his company’s research suggests that 60 percent or more of online
accusations about food poisoning are probably false.

“I support customer feedback,” Mr. Emmins told London’s Daily
Telegraph
. “But
it is bad for consumers if they just don’t know what to trust.”

TripAdvisor
claims to be the world’s biggest travel site, with more than 35 million reviews,
all written by consumers. Third-party sites also use TripAdvisor content.

Bob
Atkinson, from TravelSupermarket, a price-comparison site which carries TripAdvisor
content, told the Telegraph, “We believe that customers
want more information than that provided by the hotel or the travel company,
which understandably wants to present their businesses in the best possible
light. But I would always caution consumers that people are always more likely
to post a negative review than a positive review on these types of websites.
That’s just human nature. Consumers need to read between the lines when they
read these reviews.”

TripAdvisor does include disclaimers for some reviews
it believes may be fake.

According to Channel Advisor’s latest Consumer Shopping
Habits Survey, 92 percent of consumers read online product reviews and, of
those, 83 percent are influenced by them.

Discussion Questions: What should retailers do about alleged defamatory
or fake online customer reviews on their websites? To what extent, if any,
does increased monitoring dilute the value of online reviews to customers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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19 Comments on "When Customer Reviews Are Defamatory"


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Roger Saunders
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

No compromise on ethics. If retailers find these messages to be ‘fake’, pull them down. Businesses and consumers alike want to deal with firms and individuals who act with integrity.

Max Goldberg
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Consumers will comment and retailers want to only show the positive side of their businesses. It’s human nature. There is bound to be conflict. Trying to hold back consumer comments in a social media world is virtually impossible to do.

Trusted websites should immediately take down any reviews, negative or positive, which are proven to be false; otherwise they should leave them alone.

Consumers should approach reviews as trends. What percentage an establishment’s reviews are positive? Then read some of the positive and some of the negative. This will usually provide a fairly accurate picture of the hotel, restaurant or retailer.

Retailers should highlight their positive reviews, and rather than fight legitimate negative reviews, should use them to provide better service to customers.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
10 years 7 months ago
Fake comments, I agree, should absolutely be removed. Overly malicious ones, too. Bad comments because the retailer is at fault should be a call to action for the retailer and never be deleted. A comment such as “Retailer has contacted the consumer and resolved this issue” is good PR. There are times when companies’ policies and rules are inappropriate and should be examined. For instance, I bought a new computer 6 months ago. Just got a message it has been recalled (known to catch on fire). I called the manufacturer and they said I must send it in and it would be 7-10 days. I asked what I was supposed to do in the meantime, they said “don’t know we don’t have a loaner, etc.” Consumers should know about such policies; this is unacceptable for business users. Is this a reason to get malicious? No, but a consumer blog comment would be helpful to the next consumer wanting to buy this computer (which was highly rated by consumer reports! :))
Devangshu Dutta
Guest
Devangshu Dutta
10 years 7 months ago

Rating platforms that are seen as authoritative are likely to be gamed both by players providing favorable reviews for themselves, as well as those who want to flame the competition. Websites providing review functionality need to take reasonable precautions that they don’t become prone to abuse. And if abuse is pointed out they should have clearly laid down guidelines for handling complaints. However, the operative phrase here is “reasonable precautions.”

Suing the platform for reviews posted by unrelated third-parties is like holding phone companies responsible for abusive phone calls. It’s inappropriate, and in the long run likely to damage/dilute a valuable functionality on these sites, as they may choose to discontinue reviews and ratings, rather than risk lawsuits.

David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Although e-commerce is now more than 15 years old, we are still very much in the “wild west” state of development. No one really knows for certain how all this will shake out in the near term and longer term about consumer reviews for products and services. Here are some possibilities:
1. The laws will change and consumers will need to follow new rules. For example, anonymity might become of thing of the past.
2. The laws will change and retailers will have to assume responsibility constantly monitoring what is posted on their sites.
3. It will remain the way it is today: any anonymous consumer can post any message and it will be protected by free speech. Products and services will have to live with it and get better at circumventing and responding accordingly not in a legal way but more so in a strategic way.

Dick Seesel
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

TripAdvisor is generally regarded as a credible site for reviews of hotels and other travel venues. If anything, I have found their reviews tend to overrate just as much as they underrate, and I believe TripAdvisor does take steps to weed out “outlier” reviews lacking credibility. I think retailers and service providers who stand to benefit from review sites need to recognize that they are a double-edged sword. It’s just possible that some of the negative reviews might cause a retailer to “look in the mirror” and address problems that might have otherwise been ignored.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
10 years 7 months ago
I thought “reputation economy” was supposed to fix this issue–where reviewers who are consistent and open about who they are, and are verified as legitimate people with legitimate opinions, get their reviews (good or bad) featured more prominently than anonymous people who have no track record as a reviewer and therefor higher risk that they are a competitor or a surly ex-employee who is gaming the system. Something like that should really not be an issue for a company that has been around as long as TripAdvisor, and if legitimacy is becoming an issue, then simply require a scanned copy of the receipt (with identifying details obscured) for the nights of stay that form the basis of the review. Or the ticket stub, or whatever. My next thought about this topic is that these claims under-estimate the average consumer. A lot of retailers say that sometimes low-rated items or items that receive poor reviews still sell well. Why is that? From my personal experience, I’ve found that I discount reviews that are overly harsh or… Read more »
Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 7 months ago

Resorting to lawsuits for bad reviews seems a bit “doth protest too much” to me. As Nikki points out, retailers should give the customers some credit for being able to sniff out malicious and/or unreasonable claims.

The best model I’ve seen is the one that Amazon uses. They separate the positive from the negative to two distinct groups. This gives a good balance and (the main point) useful information.

Robert Heiblim
Guest
Robert Heiblim
10 years 7 months ago

What is most interesting about this question is, what was the intent of putting reviews on the site? Companies must know that not all feedback will be positive. Trouble arises when companies simply follow trend, in this case the taking of consumer feedback openly posted. However, what was the intention? Did they mean to read it, use it, address it?

Like other posters have commented, it is clear there will be ridiculous outliers, but are companies prepared to respond to others with valid complaints about products or services? If companies do not plan to have resources available to address customer input then they should not post it.

However, seeing the actual responses of consumers is so very valuable one must question if companies not doing this are playing ostrich. The reality is that it is often not easy to get this input, so all companies should seek it, but only when they are ready to respond.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
10 years 7 months ago

When you invite comments from customers you open the door to both the satisfied customers and foes alike. You get what you ask for but the worms do crawl in to attack the process. A shame.

I have read many of TripAdvisors’ comments and sometimes wonder how the reactions the to the same experience can vary so widely. So I do my own evaluation. That’s the price that the solicitor has to expect. So let’s go with the flow and knowing there will be dangerous undercurrents. But too much control of the process attacks its integrity.

James Tenser
Guest
10 years 7 months ago
I generally appreciate access online customer reviews, and I consult them regularly when researching a variety of purchases. On balance, we should favor transparency and open discourse about consumer-facing businesses. It’s however quite evident that online review systems can be and are manipulated by individuals with a vested commercial interest–either brand advocates or brand detractors. I’ve spotted instances of both ridiculous praise and unfounded damaging criticism. I take either as a red flag about a prospective purchase–when emotions run high like that there is often something afoot. Sites that publish user reviews take on a responsibility for screening out certain forms of damaging speech. Competitors’ defamatory comments (including those submitted by social media hired guns) should be rooted out and flagged or removed wherever possible. Similarly, manipulated praise should be discouraged with firm policy and purged where possible. Policies must be designed to put systematic liars on notice and practices maintained to identify and screen them out. Freedom of speech has limitations in the commercial setting and one of those limits is the line between… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The fact is ethics and integrity are important in today’s transparent and mostly invisible world of technology. The fact is we need and want to believe what we read is accurate. The fact is it isn’t always what it appears to be and that is sad.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 7 months ago

Consumer review is one of the very best means of keeping vendors and service providers honest. It’s not really consumer reviews with which people are having a problem. The problem seems to arise when companies take the tack of badmouthing their competition. If this is the case and it can be verified, then the perpetrators should be taken straight to court.

It might be beneficial if people are only allowed to comment if they enter a code from a legitimate receipt and register personal information with the rating service. It is too easy to be irresponsible if you are anonymous, taking pot shots.

Doug Pruden
Guest
Doug Pruden
10 years 7 months ago
In a perfect world we would be able to trust every opinion posted by our fellow consumers on websites. But we know that angry customers can overstate the reality of the situation, and worse that individuals can and have taken the posts as an opportunity to unfairly damage the image of their competitors, and marketers have “created” customers that go online to rave about their own products and services. At the same, time expecting websites to be responsible for determining which reviews are “false,” “defamatory” or “malicious” would be a major task with a whole other set of ethical issues. Whether you agree or disagree with their action, the US government has already written legislation related to the issue and cases have been raised in the courts. In a recent lawsuit, a dentist sued Yelp alleging that he had been defamed by a false review they posted. New York Supreme Court Judge Jane Solomon rejected the claim ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act immunized Yelp from liability for comments left by users. “Congress granted… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

This discussion is in a nutshell the reason why I’m always dubious about claims how the internet (and its progeny “social media”) is bringing us into not just a new millennium but THE Millennium: namely that many of the very factors that give the web age its value (spontaneity, anonymity, loose control and decentralization) also give rise to forces that undermine it (fraud, unreliability, litigation). No one of course would seriously dispute that a review or remark which “has been proven false and defamatory” should be removed from a site once it’s discovered; the questions are how that determination is to be made, how to mitigate the damage such (fraudulent)activity causes, and–most importantly–how to prevent it without discouraging people from speaking, if not the Truth, at least the truth. Ultimately, I guess, we’ll see far more rules and standards, and a dependence on a few sites and sources, as opposed to the “every person their own critic” mantra…in short, the future will look much like the present.

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
10 years 7 months ago

I guess the challenge lies in the ability to objectively ascertain the validity and efficacy of the claims/comments.

Kai Clarke
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

This is a poor representation of reality by a company that clearly has a “service” to sell. In reality, great customer service reflects on happy customers regardless of what the particular situation turns out to be. The retailers who provide feedback demonstrate that there is no bad feedback, only unresolved customer issues. Newegg stands out as one of the better ones on the Internet, where both Newegg and product manufacturers provide feedback to customer issues until they are resolved, posted to the customer feedback area. The same is true for many of the better hotels, including Shangri La Hotels and Intercontinental Hotels.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
10 years 7 months ago
First, I must admit I do put a lot of credence in online reviews, but I also understand their veracity must be questioned. That is often the reason I will read several of the extremely bad and good reviews while weighing the preponderance of reviews in the middle. It seems to me that it is important that the service provider have a lot of users who were ok with their operation verses the extremes. This approach has served me well until very recently. I am still working my way through a transaction I began with an online retailer who had a 4.5 out of 5 and over 15,000 reviews. The majority were in the middle, with only a few extremely bad or happy reviews. The thing I didn’t notice before purchasing was that while this retailer had a 5 year history, the majority of the bad reviews have occurred over the past 60 days. This, previously well liked retailer, had fallen off a cliff, receiving a whole string of 1 and 2 ratings very recently.… Read more »
Jeff Bulger
Guest
Jeff Bulger
10 years 7 months ago

Only on the internet could an internet opinion forum debate the validity of an internet opinion forum.

Any retailer knows that for every positive review you will get 25 negative. Has anyone really torn apart a website to find a customer service number to say, “Wow, I had a great experience”?

When was the last time you called your computer customer service number to say, “Running fine. Thank you.”

TripAdvisor has to know this … so do the retailers in question. Yes, delete the obviously false ones and the plants but leave the rest alone.

If you can’t stand negative customer feedback, you never should have gone into retail.

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