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Consumers, Small Business and Yelp: The Free Speech Controversy

Yelp and Free Speech

No doubt your business has a Yelp profile. Consumers check that before deciding to go to you for what they need. But what type of transparency is there for consumers as to what online reviews have been removed by Yelp, which ones stay up but could be phony reviews, and if you – the business owner – have any control? It’s a great question as well as an issue that’s been building for years within the Yelp community. Yelp recently started flagging businesses too, as they say, protect the consumer first and foremost. There are plenty of moving pieces that have all led up to this including court battles, Yelp Free Speech lawsuits, business owners making angry-worried-crazy moves and what it means for you.

There have been a series of court cases that have ruled in the favor of Consumers and have affected Yelp’s practices, which in turn are having pretty solid repercussions for consumers and businesses.

2014 Yelp Ruling for Consumers: In late 2014 a Bill was passed in California titled the ‘Yelp Bill.’ It came about afterword that certain companies were putting caveats in contracts that prevent customers from saying negative things about them online. Crazy right? Contracts from Businesses like Dentists, contractors or travel services inserting clauses in agreements that say the consumer is restricted from writing negative comments, no matter what their experiences. The ‘Yelp Bill’ was one of the first to protect consumers from ‘non-disparagement’ clauses and makes them null and void.

2015 Ruling for Yelp and Consumer Identities: A case was brought to the table by Hadeed Carpet who claimed that commenters on Yelp were not actually customers of the company. Yelp argued that the reviewers’ speech was protected by the First Amendment. Hadeed started receiving a string of harsh reviews on his Yelp page and claims that business sank tremendously because of it. So Hadeed sued 7 reviewers for defamation as well as demanded that Yelp reveal their true identities.

In another huge victory for Yelp and it’s commenters a Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Yelp could not be forced to reveal the identities of a user who had posted negative reviews.

Yelp’s “Consumer Alert” warning: In 2015 Yelp started actively marking companies with a ‘Consumer Alert’ about shady practices but this time it’s gone Legal! The newest warning lets you know if there have been Questionable Legal Threats. Yelp is taking the stance that they are protecting consumers who don’t know if a company who is suing consumers is doing so out of merit.

Buyer Beware?

Buyer Beware? The new Legal Threat Consumer Alert Reads:” This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers. As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on Yelp.”

Current Law on the floor of Congress also protecting Consumers: The Consumer Review Freedom Act is currently being considered by Congress and would voice any contract that prohibits restricts or imposes a penalty on consumers who write a review. Yelp has nicknamed it the ‘Right to Yelp Bill” thought its implications would affect more than any other review site.

What consumers are saying: Consumers have been slapped with plenty of legal repercussions from companies which are spurring a lot of these lawsuits. One example: the Duchouqettes of Dallas used a company called “Prestigious Pets” and had a less than positive experience. They posted a one-star review and then boom – Fast forward to a lawsuit from the company for defamation and for breaching a nondisparagement contract.

I think we can all agree that a consumer should be able to post an honest review and call out services that don’t make the cut. The issue? We’ve also seen plenty of reviewers who are overly harsh/judgemental or might be biased (a friend of a competitor, didn’t actually use the service as they claim) and that business owner feels well, powerless.

So what’s the beef? This protection of consumers does seem one-sided as far as businesses are concerned. Yelp has an algorithm around what an Established User is but because it’s just that – an algorithm – it’s not 100% clear what reviews get taken down. Some businesses would like more clarity around which reviews are taken down.

  • Yelp has no system in place to confirm that the reviewer actually patronized a business
  • Yelp already takes down 25% of reviews for ‘non-active’ yelpers
  • Yelp filters both good and bad reviews based on criteria. They explain their  Review Filter here.


There’s even a Documentary titled Billion Dollar Bully currently in post-production that is marketing their effort to explore “marketing giant Yelp’s $3.6 billion racket against small business owners.” It brings the David vs Goliath Small Business vs Big Yelp battle to the forefront.

Phew – there’s a lot at play here! All we know is that Yelp is forging a new canvas when it comes to Consumers and the protection of their opinions, and they are here to stay. Consumer Reviews are shaping how businesses succeed or fail more than ever. We will continue to keep track of the laws and news in this Yelp Free Speech triangle!