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Court fight effectively discredits Yelp, veterinarian says

Rehearing request pending in class-action appeal


September 30, 2014
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service



Photo courtesy of Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital
The veterinary clinic of Dr. Greg Perrault, who has been in practice for more than 20 years, is one of several small-business plaintiffs in an ongoing class-action suit against the online review site Yelp.
A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that Yelp may give higher ratings to companies that buy advertising may seem like a victory for the online review site. But a plaintiff in the class-action suit says Yelp is the loser.

“Yelp’s reputation has been damaged,” said Dr. Gregory Perrault, a veterinarian whose clinic is one of four businesses that are party to the suit. “Most people question (whether a rating) is … real or not, so I think we were effective that way.”

Yelp maintains that it “treats advertisers and non-advertisers exactly the same." But even if Yelp's recommendations were influenced by advertising relationships, the company would not be breaking the law, the appeals court said in a Sept. 2 ruling.

Lawrence D. Murray, a San Francisco lawyer representing the plaintiffs, on Sept. 16 filed a request for a rehearing by the full court. The opinion was rendered by a panel of three. Murray said in an interview that a hearing en banc, as it is called, would involve 11 justices. He anticipates a response to the request in one or two weeks.

The class-action suit dates to 2010, when a variety of business owners jointly accused Yelp of unfair business practices and extortion. Yelp, established in 2004, publishes online reviews submitted by customers. Credibility is its stock in trade. In a description of what it does, Yelp says, “It's about real people giving their honest and personal opinions on everything from restaurants and spas to coffee shops and bars.”  

Asked whether the company is concerned that the litigation raises doubts among the public about the legitimacy of its ratings, a Yelp public-relations specialist provided a statement from Vince Sollitto, Yelp vice president of corporate communications and government affairs. The statement reads in part: “Millions of consumers rely on Yelp every day because they trust our content, which is why businesses can’t pay to remove or alter their reviews.”

According to Yelp, the review site had an average of 138 million unique visitors per month during the second quarter of 2014. More than 61 million reviews have been written by "Yelpers" since the company's inception.

Perrault, owner of Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach, California, said he did not know much about Yelp when he first encountered it. “We thought it was a bunch of kids in a garage doing this,” he said. “We didn’t even know what this thing is about. You all of a sudden have a page. You didn’t create it; it was created for you.”

Looking at reviews on his clinic’s Yelp page submitted by putative clients, Perrault said he was alarmed to see that some gave detailed personal information, including his license plate number and an employee’s home address. He called Yelp to ask that those reviews be removed, and the company agreed.

That exchange evolved into something else. Perrault said he started receiving calls from a Yelp salesman with quid pro quo offers: “Here’s some things we can do if you buy advertising.”

Yelp consistently has denied that advertising purchases influence the one- to five-star ratings it gives businesses or that they affect the presence or prominence of positive and negative reviews.

The class-action case presented the experiences and complaints of Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital, along with that of Boris Levitt, owner of a furniture restoration business; Mercurio, an auto body repair shop; and Dr. Tracy Chan, a dentist. The suit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court in 2011 and appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower-court judgment.

The appellate court opinion states: “Yelp’s manipulation of user reviews, assuming it occurred, was not wrongful use of economic fear ...”

It elaborates: “The business owners may deem the posting or order of user reviews as a threat of economic harm, but it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews. As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

Absent support from the courts, businesses are trying other ways to counter Yelp. One San Francisco Bay area restaurant’s strategy is to mock the review site by encouraging its customers to “hate us on Yelp.”

“We think that bad reviews are way more entertaining and fun to read,” Botto Bistro of Richmond writes on its “Hall of Shame” page. “… We notice that the more aggressive and stupid the reviews are, the more we can laugh about it and, of course, make fun of it.”

Rachel Walker, senior public relations specialist at Yelp, said the company takes seriously attempts to undermine the credibility of reviews. “Obviously, protecting content integrity is critical to Yelp serving as a trusted resource for consumers,” she said by email.

In “high-profile media cases” such as that of Botto Bistro, she said, “We have a team of folks who monitor the situation to make sure reviews that are contributed follow our terms of service, for instance, representing an actual first-hand experience, not based on media hearsay.”

In general, Walker said, Yelp uses automated software to help determine which reviews it should recommend to users, with the aim of highlighting those it considers the most helpful and reliable. “More often than not, these reviews come from the more active members of the Yelp community,” she said. “We currently recommend about 70 percent of the 50-plus million reviews contributed. Of the remaining reviews, some are fakes, some are shills and some are from people we just don't know enough about to recommend.”

Perrault, the veterinary clinic owner, doesn’t spend time fretting about Yelp, despite his role in the lawsuit alleging extortion.

“Fortunately, we have a nice little business here,” he said of the three-doctor practice he’s owned for 10 years. “We have a very small clinic that has very upscale clientele, and we have a very good word-of-mouth program. We’re involved with the community and so forth. Yelp is a factor, but it’s not the only factor that makes us or breaks us.”

Perrault noted that veterinary practices — and medical practices in general — have an advantage in being able to authenticate reviews. “You must, or at least should, keep records of everyone who comes to your door and spends a dime,” he said. You’ve got the name of the person. When a review comes up, you should be able to trace that back to a specific client.”

As for what to do when the writer of a negative review is identified, Perrault said that depends. “It’s case by case,” he said. “There are some people, you know, (with whom) no contact is better than any contact. And writing a reviewer back on the website may just attract attention; everybody wants to watch a fight on the Internet. Some clients you just are not going to make happy because you can’t make everybody happy. It may be best to just politely assist them to see another vet.”

But negative reviews that are the result of simple misunderstandings can be corrected by reaching out to the critics, Perrault said.

At the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, Dr. Tony Bartels manages a website service called eVetSites and answers questions from VIN members about protecting their online reputations. His advice concerning review sites such as Yelp is to take as much control as possible.

“Whether you like it or not, somebody can create a listing (for your business). I can go create one for the Jiffy Lube down the street if they don’t have one,” Bartels said. “You can claim these listings.”

Claiming it, he said, means acknowledging that the business is yours and checking to see that the directory information — address, telephone number, map, hours and so on — is accurate.

Bartels advocates responding to reviews, good and bad. The object is not to engage with a critic or to try to solve problems in the public arena, he said; rather, it’s to project the business to prospective clients.

“You can use that as an opportunity to communicate to the Yelp reading public that you’re not a terrible person,” Bartels said. “Tell them what you want them to know about your practice or why they should bring their animals to see you and your team. After all, this is a marketing platform."

He continued: "You want people to know that this (reviewer’s) opinion is their opinion, and they’re welcome to it, ‘but this is my opinion of our business, and this is how we conduct it.' You’re writing it not to the person who is complaining; you’re writing it for the other people who are coming to Yelp to find out about your business.”

Bartels believes that despite Yelp’s critics and the credibility questions raised by the lawsuit, the review site remains hugely influential. “I think that the general public uses Yelp as a reliable source of information, even though it’s not,” he said.

Perrault, the Yelp litigant, accepts that Internet review sites are here to stay. If Yelp went offline tomorrow, he said, another would take its place: “That particular company may come and go, but that type of thing is not going to go away. We just have to adapt as a profession.”

Perrault advises practice owners to keep tabs on what is said about them online, but in the end, he said, the best way to manage their reputations is to provide excellent service. “I encourage my colleagues, just do what you were doing before — just practice the best medicine,” he said. “As a profession, I think we need to look at doing a good job to the highest ethical standards, and the good reviews will come.”

Update: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 28 rejected the petition for a rehearing.




VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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