25 November, 2014

Are Anonymous Online Reviewers in Danger?

anonymous reviewsLove ‘em or hate ‘em but anonymous reviews are a part of the online landscape – at least for now.

These types of anonymous reviews have gotten more exposure in recent years because of a Yelp lawsuit, in the US, which is trying to force the company to reveal anonymous users.

In this lawsuit, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning received negative reviews on Yelp.  While they aren’t asserting the negative reviews were false, the seven anonymous reviews could not be matched to its own customer database. Therefore, they are demanding Yelp reveal its database of users.

As a result of this lawsuit, in 2012, a court ordered Yelp to reveal the anonymous users and its customer database; Yelp users must register with the site to post review and ratings. Yelp appealed the decision citing that it was infringing on free speech and only in instances of compelling cases should social media companies be forced to reveal anonymous users’ identities.

Although the appeals court agreed on the free speech part, they also felt that businesses have the right to protect their reputation. As a result, the court ruled the comments as less-protected commercial speech under the First Amendment.  While we don’t have the “free speech” issue in Australia, Yelp’s overall behaviour towards reviews and reviewers is shaped by what happens in the US.

Now the US state Supreme Court will determine whether social media companies can be forced to reveal user identities based on whether a business isn’t happy about what’s said of their company or service. This decision could affect the entire online community as a whole! Does this mean that ultimately anonymous reviews will only be kept anonymous unless a company isn’t keen on a review and demands the social site, news site or online forum expose customers’ personal information?

We haven’t seen evidence of court cases against Yelp here in Australia yet but it’s important, as a business that allows for anonymous reviews, to know the laws surrounding them.

The ACCC website gives local businesses tips on what conduct they consider misleading with anonymous reviews. This includes soliciting positive reviews, offering incentives in exchange for favourable reviews as well as advice on how to identify fake reviews and omitting them from your site.

As a consumer viewing and taking value in these reviews, it’s important to look at the review wording, star rating and number of reviews on any particular site. Weigh what people are saying, how they are saying it and look for redundancy in phrasing.

A few such sites in Australia that allow for anonymous reviews are:

  • – these are completely anonymous
  • Google, TrueLocal (Aussie), Urbanspoon, Eatability (Aussie) – these allow for anonymous reviews in that there is no requirement you use your “real” name
  • Glassdoor & Jobadvisor (Aussie) – allows for anonymous employee reviews

Anonymity helps those who want to speak out about a business but don’t want their identity revealed – e.g. bankruptcy attorney, DUI attorney, proctologist, pest control (think restaurant!). Sadly, it also helps hide unscrupulous people who seek to maliciously harm a business.  Will be interesting to watch this space and see how it plays out over the coming years.

Source:Yelp Lawsuit Could Expose Anonymous Online Commenters

Have you ever been the victim of a malicious review?  Or, do anonymous reviews help your business?