Leaving Negative Reviews Online: Everything You Need to Know

20 Oct 2014 at 4:30pm

Written by 
Josh King, Avvo’s Vice President of Business Development and General Counsel

American consumers have strongly embraced online reviews of goods and services. According to the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey, online reviews have become one of the most trusted sources of consumer information when making purchasing decisions, trailing only behind branded websites and the gold standard of the personal referral.

Nielsen Trust in Advertising Survey

What accounts for this phenomenon? It’s likely the fact that online reviews offer consumers a glimpse of the reality behind a product or service. With the marketing veneer stripped away, the truth of the consumer experience is revealed — both good and bad.

While this transparency is great for consumers, it’s not always so popular with businesses, particularly those that aren't providing the most up-to-scratch customer service. Rather than embrace online feedback as free market research, some businesses react by trying to prevent reviews, stifle feedback, or even by suing when negative opinions are voiced.

However, the fact that some businesses are thin-skinned shouldn’t stop you from making your online voice heard. Here are a few things to keep in mind when leaving reviews online, especially when your consumer experience was less than stellar:

Businesses try to ban consumer reviews, governments respond with their own bans
Over the last few years, a number of businesses have attempted to keep their customers from leaving online reviews through the creative use of customer contracts or by burying anti-review rules in website terms of use.

While such tactics are rare, they haven’t escaped notice in California, which in September became the first state to  ban the use of such blatantly anti-consumer rules. Other states are considering similar legislation, and a bill was recently introduced in Congress that would extend consumer protection nationwide.

Negative opinions are fair play, but get your facts straight
Avvo Legal Question

While a negative experience with a product or service can make you want to vent online, it’s important to understand the difference between opinion and fact. Consumers are  free to express their opinions of businesses online, but playing fast and loose with the facts is dangerous.

Making false statements can form the basis for a defamation claim by the aggrieved business. What’s the difference between opinion and fact? “The restaurant was awful” is a statement of opinion, but “The restaurant uses spoiled food that will make you sick” is a statement of fact.

It’s also best to be as specific as possible when leaving online feedback. Detailed information, whether positive or negative, provides potential buyers with far more guidance than general, hyperbolic statements. It’s also less likely to create legal concerns, as being specific will help you stick to the true facts about your experience.

Federal law protects review sites
Federal law protects review sites like RealSelf and Avvo from being sued over the comments left in user reviews. ("No provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.") However, that doesn’t mean such sites won’t maintain community guidelines and police reviews for compliance. When leaving a review, make sure it meets the guidelines of the site. The good news is that most site guidelines are designed to encourage honest, specific feedback, so if you follow the advice above, you should have no concerns about whether your review will be published.

Tell us what you think!
Don’t let a few high-profile lawsuits and clumsy attempts at contractual gag orders keep you from voicing your opinions and experiences. By following the simple guidelines above, you can confidently contribute to the review ecosystem that benefits consumers and helps improve the quality of goods and services from those businesses that are willing to listen.

About Avvo

Avvo is the largest online legal marketplace connecting consumers and lawyers. In Avvo’s Q&A forum, consumers can get legal questions answered for free by more than 180,000 participating lawyers or search more than 6.1 million existing questions and answers. The lawyer directory provides Avvo-rated profiles, client reviews, and peer endorsements for 97% of all lawyers in the U.S., so consumers can find the lawyer who’s right for them. Avvo attorneys write about legal issues in everyday life over at Avvo’s NakedLaw blog.