Yelp Ruling Could Shed Light on Anonymous Apartment Reviewers

 

Anonymous online reviewers of businesses may have to step out of the shadows.

The Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled in early January that opinions from anonymous reviewers who are not customers and who make false claims are not protected under the First Amendment. Judge William G. Petty said Yelp, a popular online review site, must identify to the court the names of seven reviewers who anonymously criticized a prominent local carpet cleaner.

Attorneys representing Hadeed Carpet Cleaning had requested a subpoena to get the names of those the owner believes wrote false reviews about his business.

The court noted that the right to free speech is “assiduously guarded in all mediums of expression, from the analog to the digital” and that the “anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him.”

However, Judge Petty said only reviewers who have patronized an establishment have the right to post anonymous opinions. In a story posted by the Washington Times, a lawyer for Yelp said consumers should be concerned about the ruling and that it will be more difficult to get valuable information about companies.

Companies Fined for False Reviews

Businesses, including apartments, are watching the case with interest. Anonymous reviews, especially those that are negative and from non-verified posters, previously have drawn attention in the courts and from state regulators.

In recent months, New York cracked down on 19 companies for posting false reviews and fined them $350,000. Also, the Taiwan Fair Trade Commission fined Samsung $340,000 for posting false reviews on its products and for writing negative reviews about competitors.

Could the Virginia ruling be the start of something big or simply another step in the evolution of anonymous online reviews? For now, the ruling would not impact those who submit online reviews limited to their opinion. To the extent those opinions are supported by statements of fact, however, the ruling opens the door for potential exposure. Facts can be false. This potential blurring of lines when mixed with the First Amendment component makes it tricky.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Jennifer Staciokas, Lincoln Property Company. marketing and training VP. “You look at freedom of speech and everybody has a right to an opinion, but at the same time you can’t prove the people who anonymously write false reviews and violate their terms of agreement.”

Reputation Management is a Part of Day-to-Day Business

Untold hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the relatively new apartment management metric of administering online reviews. Reputation management teams have been placed on site and outsourced to help companies manage what’s being said about them on the Internet and beyond.

About six months ago, Prometheus Real Estate Group in San Mateo, Calif., hired a person who spends a large portion of time managing online reputation, specifically dealing with online reviews, including those from Yelp.

Dallas-based Lincoln Property Co. has dashboards in place to send emails to onsite, regional and corporate teams to alert of reviews good or bad.

Where this shift in marketing dynamics is going, few know. One thing’s certain: The industry must confront the issue daily.

It’s new territory,” said Apartment Association of Greater Dallas Executive Director Kin Oldham. “It’s something else that we have to ponder and put focus on that we didn’t have to 10 years ago.”

Jessica Johnson, Prometheus’ reputation and social impact manager, says the company reads every review it receives and does its best to respond, research, and evaluate 100 percent of online feedback. She works with each property manager to ensure that reviews are accurate. For those that are not, Prometheus tries to get them removed as soon as possible.

“While this may be a lot of work, it is what must be done to ensure we maintain the integrity of our brand and our online presence,” she said.

Yelp Ruling Could Effect Anonymous Online Reviews

Anonymous Apartment Reviews “Do a Disservice to Apartment Shoppers”

Online reviews can of course benefit a company, Staciokas noted. It’s the anonymous ones — no name, no photo — that aren’t as believable. A Yelp poster since May 2009 who has penned more than 2,000 reviews, she believes the company is serious about reviews on line being authentic and that people should have an outlet to express their thoughts.

“I think most people who write reviews are doing so to help other people,” she said. “On Yelp we’ve found that the majority of the people use their name and put their picture on the review. We’ll try to converse with them, and, normally, we’ve found they are actual residents.”

Andy Hamilton, vice president, consumer ILS, for RealPage, says anonymous reviews do a disservice to apartment shoppers who seek honest, reliable feedback from other consumers. He anticipates that the industry will pressure industry-related review sites to require only verified reviews.

“If someone can’t put his name behind a review, then in my opinion it’s not trustworthy,” he said. “Additionally, if the reviewer isn’t a verified resident, then how can a shopper trust his comments on the living experience at the property?”

Johnson says that Prometheus puts a lot of stock in Yelp’s algorithm to flag fake reviews, making the site more valuable to the company. But that forcing a site to turn over the names of anonymous reviewers opens the doors to other businesses to seek identities just because they do not like the reviews they are getting.

“If you have a bad review, you should spend that time evaluating why your customers are dissatisfied and developing a strategy to manage your online reputation.”

Does Rule Mark Evolution of Anonymous Online Reviews?

While Oldham says that AAGD has no official position on the Virginia ruling, he believes that the Internet is no place for an unhappy resident to grouse about a property, especially if the apartment community has not been contacted about the problem.

When AAGD receives resident complaints, typically the problem lies with the communication, or lack thereof, between the resident and management. The association provides as much assistance as it can, Oldham said, to remedy the complaint.

“The (property) shouldn’t have to go into the general media to hear complaints,” he said.

Johnson doubts that reviewers who have written anonymously will shy away from future posts based on the ruling. The urge is too great to share positive and negative service experiences with family and friends. But the quality of reviews might get better.

“A good reviewer is fair and provides insight into the true essence of the community they are reviewing, which means review content may improve as a whole. These reviewers could care less if their name and photo accompanies the review, because it’s true.”

The evolution of anonymous online reviews may, in fact, may be moving into the light of day.

 

(Image Sources: Shutterstock)

 

 


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

  • As members of the multi family industry, we have for years asked the online ratings companies to police their posted comments. We have known that anonymous, malicious and slanderous comments are commonplace but always protected by the “free speech” escape phrase. Slander, lies and even half-truths are never appropriate and not intended to be a protected form of “free speech”.

    Our company monitors online reviews, responds to those that are genuine and just must endure the rantings by those who are anonymous and malicious. We welcome the opportunity to solve areas where we are deficient and we encourage our staff to accept good, factual, constructive criticism.

    If this lawsuit brings about more transparency by the commenting party and accountability of the online ratings companies–we are encouraged and supportive.

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