On July 2, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that could have major implications for California businesses. In Hassell v. Bird, the court upheld First Amendment protection for online publications, ruling (4-3) that Yelp could not be ordered to take down a defamatory review.
The case involved a negative review posted by Ava Bird on California attorney Dawn Haskell’s Yelp profile. Haskell sued Bird — her former client who posted the review — and won by default judgment when Bird failed to appear in court. The Trial Court found statements in the reviews (two separate reviews were at issue even though Bird only admitted to one) to be defamatory and ordered Yelp to take them down.
Yelp was not a party to the case and moved to vacate the trial court’s order based on its due process and First Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion and the Court of Appeal also rejected Yelp’s appeal.
When the case went to the California Supreme Court, 18 media companies filed Friend of the Court briefs in support of Yelp’s position.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye overturned the order stating in an opinion joined by associate justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan, “In substance, Yelp is being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews.”
Associate Justice Leondra Kruger concurred for a different reason: “Hassell did not name Yelp as a defendant, so the company did not get its ‘own day in court.’”
Yelp’s general counsel published a blog post celebrating the ruling.
The importance of online reviews to your marketing strategy
Business owners have to pay attention to online reviews because they can have a huge impact. According to a 2016 report from Biznology, 81 percent of consumers report that they do their research online before making a purchase, and 77 percent of online shoppers use reviews to make their final purchase decision.
I see this every day in my personal life and my business. We all check out hotel and restaurant reviews on Google, Yelp and other sites before booking. My wife won’t buy anything on Amazon without checking the reviews. And as the owner of an online marketing company, I see the impact that positive reviews make in our clients’ search rankings and lead totals.
Reviews and star ratings are prominent in Google’s search results including paid search and local/maps. By using Schema code, we have been able to get our clients’ star ratings to show up in Google’s organic search results as well.
In short, a strong review profile across multiple review platforms is no longer a “nice to have.” It has become essential for any business that hopes to compete in today’s marketplace.
How the Yelp ruling impacts business owners
It is already challenging at best to have a negative review taken down; now the California Supreme Court has made that task virtually impossible — at least in California.
But this ruling shouldn’t change how you approach reviews for your business. As a business owner, a positive review profile should be a key part of your online marketing strategy.
Here are a few steps you should take:
1. Exceptional customer service. Start with the one thing you control — the service that you provide to your customers. I can’t stress enough the importance of exceptional customer service. If you don’t deliver a positive experience to your customers, you will have more negative reviews than you can handle.
Too many business owners forget that customer service starts at the top. I have seen time and again how a doctor with an abrasive bedside manner manages to rack up negative review after negative review. The business owner’s attitude toward customers filters down to other employees. You must set the tone and make clear that your standard for customer service is second to none. Your staff will follow and so will your reviews.
2. Encourage your customers to share their experiences. Ask all of your customers to share their experiences with your business. While Yelp’s terms of service object to this practice, I contend that if you ask every customer to share their experience, and you don’t distinguish between happy customers and unhappy customers, you will get an honest review profile.
By making this part of your standard protocol with every customer, your staff will be more aware of its importance and they will treat your customers better. This in turn will lead to more positive reviews.
3. Share positive reviews with your staff. Celebrate them! Again, this will make your staff more aware of positive reviews and by publicly celebrating them and the employees who helped achieve them, you will create an environment of friendly competition that will lead to better customer service and help you get more positive reviews.
4. Use an online review platform. While it is true that most customers can find their way to an online review site on their own, you should make it easy for them. Ratings and review platforms do this. If you ask them to share their experience and they agree, offer to text or email them the link so they have it right on their phones. Your reviews will skyrocket.
Related: Who’s Managing Your Online Reviews?
5. Post a response to every review. Always post a response to an online review regardless of whether it is a positive or negative review. Pay attention to the language and tone of the review and adjust your response as appropriate. Think about how your response will be perceived by the reviewer as well as by future prospects who are reading your online reviews. Your customers and potential customers will appreciate the fact that you pay attention to their feedback.
6. Don’t get angry. When (not if) you do get a negative review, don’t get angry. Take some time to collect your thoughts. Then post a simple and professional reply. The best thing to do is to ask the unhappy customer to call you directly. Even if that is a useless exercise for that specific customer, it sends a message to others who read the negative review. It tells them that you are reasonable and that you care.
While the California Supreme Court’s Yelp ruling may seem like a blow to businesses and owners who have been defamed in a review, it should not change your overall review strategy. Keep the focus on the positive. Ask customers for more reviews. At the end of the day, your positive reviews will overwhelm the negative and your business will benefit.