Small Business Sues Yelpers for $8 Million Over Fake Reviews

Has your medical practice been the victim of false negative reviews? A lawsuit which just went public on the website Scribd shows that a construction company in Palo Alto, California named The Link Corporation is suing Yelpers for 8 negative reviews, all of which they claim are fake. They are seeking $1 Million in damages per reviewer.

The only problem is, the Link Corporation has no idea who they are. Yet.

While the Link Corporation’s attorneys may subpoena Yelp to attempt to reveal the identity of the reviewers, in the past Yelp has fought ferociously to protect the identities of its users.

In a recent judgement from the Virginia Supreme Court regarding Yelp, the higher court decided that the reviews website is not obligated to reveal the identity of its users, but made the ruling on a somewhat complex issue(s) of prevailing state laws (Yelp is in California, the business that allegedly suffered from fake reviews was in Virginia, and the reviewer was located in an undisclosed location).

This legal evolution of free speech versus defamation is interesting for independent medical practice owners because it brings up the fundamental, inevitable question –

If you can’t win against Yelp in court (or don’t want to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees trying) what is a good defensive strategy if you’ve been unfairly trashed on Yelp?

In the case of the Link Corporation, it appears that at least the threat of legal action has persuaded Yelp to take a closer look at the reviews themselves, deeming them suspicious enough to place them in the “Not Recommended Reviews” section. The Link Corporation has also moved back to a 5 star rating on Yelp.

This is not to say that threatening a lawsuit will get your negative reviews placed in the more difficult to find subsection of your Yelp profile, nor does it completely remove the review from public view. Note how these suspicious reviews that Yelp has removed still appear in a link above the description of the business. They may be fake or suspect to Yelp, but they are not deleted, being instead moved to a sub-section of the business's profile.

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As Bruce Lee once said, “It is true that the best defense is a good offense.” Considering he stole this quote from the Chinese general Sun Tzu, the wisdom is ages old.

In the context of reviews and reputation marketing, using marketing automation software that integrates into your EHR or your Practice Management software to automatically send surveys to patients is the best offense. You can check out an example of what the results over time look like –

how to manage yelp if you're a physician or dentist

Not only does this practice owner have their social profiles rank well in Google searches, using marketing automation technology to increase the sheer volume of reviews (he has over 200 positive reviews within the first 3 links), Dr. Kramer has diluted the potential damage any single negative review can do to his reputation or to his average star ratings.

Too often I've heard practice owners say that marketing automation software (which averages around $300 per provider per month) is too expensive, but when false negative reviews from competitors, ex-employees or "nightmare patients" get published on the web, $300 seems like a bargain compared to hiring attorneys, lost potential revenues, or the stress of the situation.

As well, not all negative reviews from patients are fake. Many patients proudly display their identity online and use such publications as a way to vent their frustrations about your office, the bill, their insurance company, your office manager, etc.

Having an automated survey system that sends each patient that walks out of your office a chance to review their experience greatly decreases the chances that an upset patient will write a negative review online in the first place, having had a chance to send your practice direct feedback moments after their appointment.

Due to the somewhat opaque policies of Yelp regarding which reviews get published or not, and the speculation it has caused, clearly the best strategy is to not just have an abundance of reviews around the web but to prevent negative reviews from happening in the first place.

Finally, and this sounds self serving as I work for a marketing automation technology company here in San Francisco, the true measurement of any marketing technology isn't about defending your practice, but promoting it. Institutions like Harvard are conducting research that shows a clear correlation between the gross annual revenues of small businesses and their online star ratings. According to an article in Bloomberg about Yelp lawsuits -

A 2011 Harvard Business School study focusing on restaurant online reviews found that “a one star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue."

If your practice is grossing around $800,000 a year, that's a $40,000 to $72,000 increase in annual revenues for a single star rating increase in social media. Considering marketing automation software costs a tiny fraction of that, the ROI (return on investment) seems abundantly clear to calculate. Never mind the peaceful night's sleep.

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