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How many times have you been deterred by a negative Yelp review? Companies dread the thought of losing potential customers because of a few nasty words they may have seen online. To keep up their reputation, some companies have added “non-disparagement” clauses to their terms of service.

By agreeing to the terms of service, these clauses make it impossible for customers to properly express their opinion. Go ahead and write a negative complaint, however you can be fined and even sued. According to a Marketwatch article, after hosting an event at the Union Street Guest House in New York, a $500 fee is charged for every negative review you (or your guest) may write.

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Image Courtesy of Yelp Inc.

Luckily, according to the an article from The Verge, California Governor Jerry Brown has taken action to make sure businesses do not abuse their power. He signed a law that will ban future companies from slipping non-disparagement clauses into their contracts giving “yelpers” across California some relief.

Social Media has changed the way we find businesses and services. Long gone is the charm of getting lost and stumbling upon a new place  With review sites like Yelp, and Tripadvisor, customers have a preconceived opinion of a restaurant before even stepping foot out the door. This weekend in Istanbul, my hostel gave me a stack of brochures for various tour companies. Naturally, I went directly for the one with the trip advisor owl on it. Upon further examination though, I realized that the owl’s colors were inverted and that the word “trip” was actually written as “rtip.” What a clever marketing stunt right?

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Courtesy of Maya Bakhai

However, there is more to this lie than marketing. In a way, the official Tripadvisor ratings are protecting us. If this tour company was willing to lie about their reputation, could their other services be a scam as well? In the digital age, we are holding businesses accountable for their actions. Social media has given power to the consumer, who’s preferences and experiences can shape the success of the company. As a result we can avoid bad experiences and take more advantage of the places we do visit. It is just as unethical for hotels to ask a Californian to take down a negative review as it is for the customer to lie about their experience. In an ideal world, “non-disparagement” clauses will be eliminated all together.

Featured Image Courtesy of Eric Molinsky

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One thought on “Big Brother is Watching (your Yelp)

  1. The idea that companies on Yelp can punish bad reviewers is, besides just being abusive, completely contradictory to the point of the website. If Yelp is supposed to be a way for average people to recommend (or not) businesses to each other, this is being totally subverted by allowing businesses to intimidate users. It’s not so much a social network at that point; a community where speech is regulated by threats from giant corporations would sound totalitarian if you left out the detail that we’re talking about Yelp. The website’s social network (same with TripAdvisor) relies heavily on public credibility that the reviews are all from genuine, normal people.

    It would be interesting to see if Yelp itself is fighting back against this, because of how detrimental this would be to both its credibility and the social network it has created. I’ve heard rumors that Yelp already engages in some shady practices like removing positive comments from business that refuse to advertise on their website, but that’s still “alleged” as far as I remember. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimhandy/2012/08/16/think-yelp-is-unbiased-think-again/) If that’s true, then I suppose it wouldn’t matter much if other businesses are attempting to skew reviews in their favor, in terms of the stability of the social network. But Yelp would still have their image to protect as non-disparagement clauses are a little more public that hiding reviews, so I’d be interested in seeing their stance on non-disparagement clauses.

    It’s also interesting that companies are inserting this into something like the terms of service, because it’s generally assumed that very few people will read the entire thing. I don’t know anybody who could name all the major points that someone agrees to in the Apple terms of service. I certainly can’t. I remember South Park once did a parody of absurdly long terms of service once by joking that a company like Apple could include horrible things in their terms that a user would be legally bound by. While that was extremely exaggerated for effect, it’s odd to see companies actually trying to exploit this assumed oversight among users. It seems like a thin line as to what kinds of things they could legally hide in the terms of service, but it’s definitely unsettling that non-disparagement clauses are a new manner of testing the waters for what’s acceptable. Hopefully they won’t work out, since as you said, people are relying on Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews much more nowadays.

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