Massachusetts Legal Blog

Protecting the Online Reputation of Your Business is More Important than Ever

Anna Shapiro, Esq., CEO

More and more, the online reputation of your business matters. According to BrightLocal’s 2014 Local Consumer Review Survey, “88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.” Reviews have an increasingly big impact on customer decisions and your bottom line. A single bad review can do a lot of damage, especially if it is malicious and false.

Smart businesses address legitimate customer complaints before they turn into major problems. If the experience your customer received was not up to standard, you can offer something like a discount on the next visit. Airlines overbook on purpose and then give out vouchers to compensate passengers on oversold flights. Restaurants give free meals to compensate those who have experienced poor service. Consumers are usually willing to forgive businesses that acknowledge problems and make amends.

But what if the complaint or bad review isn’t legitimate? What if it is made up? I was given a one-star review by someone who was never a client! The platform where the review appeared said that it wasn’t their problem – they acted like they were Switzerland, declaring neutrality. The only option I was given was to comment on the review, which I did. But the bad review was never removed. Whether the writer was confused or malicious, I have no idea. But I do know that my reputation took an undeserved hit, and I was an innocent victim.

How Trustworthy are Online Reviews, and How Damaging Can They Be?

Given the increasing number of people of all ages who look online for guidance, trustworthiness is extremely important. Yet a 2015 study by two Harvard and Boston University professors found that 16% of Boston restaurant reviews on the popular site Yelp were “false” or “suspicious.” In “Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud,” they analyzed numerous ways restaurants were gaming the system. What they reported wasn’t pretty. Advertising for fake reviews was an open secret. Overzealous restaurant owners were paying people to disparage the competition or pump their own business. Those caught were penalized by Yelp. 

In another case where someone went too far, the authors of a very negative social media campaign about a Norwood car dealership (Clay Corporation) inflicted significant economic damage. In Clay Corp. v. Colter, Mass. Superior Court 2012, Judge Renee Dupuis wrote that “Clay’s business has been severely and adversely impacted.” She found the defendants liable to the tune of $1,500,000 for their defamatory comments. However, the judge did not force the authors to remove their social media posts due to the First Amendment right to free speech. Despite the economic relief awarded, the negative comments remained for all to see. And in the world of the Internet, these comments can remain for years to come.

Remedies for Setting the Record Straight

If you are the victim of false, malicious, or defamatory comments, contacting the site where the information appears or asking the writer to remove the comments is sometimes enough. However, in cases like mine, and you can’t get the review changed or removed, what should you do?

There are a growing number of online Reputation Management companies that promise to restore the reputation of your business, for a fee, of course. Typically, they write positive articles about your company and in time, they are supposed to replace the negative ones that show up on the first page of Google. These methods often have limited usefulness, though, and some of these Reputation Management companies have even been tied to companies that post maliciously.

Do You Need an Attorney to Restore Your Reputation?

To restore your personal or business reputation, you may need to file a lawsuit. If the amount in damages you are seeking is less than $7,000, you can file a Small Claims court action. It’s important to be aware that Massachusetts law (MGL c.218, s.21) does not give Small Claims court jurisdiction over slander or libel. If your claim is based on evidence of those concerns, you may want to take your case to a higher court, as Clay Corporation did. If you’re claiming libel, under Massachusetts law you “must ordinarily establish” that the defendant published a written statement concerning you that was both defamatory and false, and either caused economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss. (See Clay Corp. v. Colter, Mass. Superior Court 2012.)

While you can certainly act as your own attorney and file pro se for your personal reputation law suit, if you are looking to protect a reputation for your business, you would be required to engage a Massachusetts Attorney to do so. The court system has many rules and regulations that can be foreign or even intimidating to the layperson. Every case is different, and we at Shapiro Law Group can work with you to determine the approach that suits your business best. If we don’t think you have a case, we will tell you that so that you don’t waste your time. Or we can work to have the offending reviews and defamatory content removed for your business, and if necessary seek damages on your behalf as a business owner.

In my next post, we’ll look at a recent case involving Yelp and a Boston retailer that has widespread implications for Massachusetts businesses. The court’s ruling was a victory for business and shattered the notion that reviewers and the platforms that host reviews can hide behind the cloak of anonymity.