Yelp Headed To Supreme Court After Refusing To Reveal Identities Of Alleged Fake Reviewers

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The Wall Street Journal reports an Internet free-speech case against online review site Yelp is headed to the Virginia Supreme Court this month.

Lawsuits were initially filed by a carpet cleaning company whose business reportedly dropped by 30% following a string of negative reviews.

The owner of the carpet cleaning company believes he was a victim of fraudulent reviews. He is not alone, as The Federal Trade Commission reportedly received more than 2,046 complaints filed about Yelp from 2008 through March 4 of this year.

The majority of the complaints are from business owners who claim to have received fraudulent reviews, with some even claiming the fraudulent reviews began to flow in after turning down a pitch to advertise on Yelp.

In response to these claims, Yelp spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand said:

“Our recommendation software doesn’t punish people who don’t advertise… There has never been any amount of money you can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews.”

yelp lawsuit


The owner of the carpet cleaning business filed lawsuits against seven reviewers who he believe are fake based on the time and location of the reviews. Yelp has denied his request to reveal the true identities of the fake reviewers and have since been held in contempt.

In January Yelp appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the reviews are protected under the First Amendment and the evidence presented wasn’t enough to prove the reviewers were fake.

The Wall Street Journal states consumer-review websites are shielded from liability for defamation claims stemming from user comments under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Business owners believe that’s not fair.

This month the Supreme Court could issue an order granting or denying Yelp’s appeal, or schedule a hearing, which could take place in the next 90-120 days.

The Wall Street Journal article also has a number of quotes from other business owners who have had their reputation damaged from negative reviews on Yelp.

We’ll have to wait and see who prevails in the case of free speech vs. fairness. To date, Yelp remains unscathed in every instance that a business owner has taken legal action after having their reputation damaged by an online review.

Should Yelp be held accountable for not removing alleged fake reviews and/or revealing the true identity of reviewers? I’d like to hear what you think in the comments section.

Matt Southern

Matt Southern

Lead News Writer
Matt Southern is the lead news writer at Search Engine Journal. His passion for helping people in all aspects of online marketing flows through in the expert industry coverage he provides.
Matt Southern
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  • Reg Charie (@RegDCP)

    If you are commenting, for or against, your ID should be available.

  • Grant Barnard

    They most definitely should! After all.. If the review is fake then it is not useful to the user. However that’s not what yelp is concerned about. I have no bad reviews on yelp, but I have hated them ever since some yahoo said that my filtered 5 star review might be able to be “looked at” IF I had an advertising account. Yelp needs to loose in this case to protect hard working local “main street” businesses and contractors.

    They are hiding behind “Free Speech” and if we let them, then we cheapen our rights by letting a company use them to gain ill gotten money.

    • Rita Mailheau

      Here. Here. Why is YELP using undisclosed sources? Bad for business. If reviews are true, the company should be allowed to redeem themselves with the people dissing their services! Otherwise, the bad reviews are questionable at best.

  • Michael Higgins

    I feel people have a right to place any kind of review they wish so long as it doesn’t insight hatred and violence. If a company loses revenue temporarily as a result of a negative review then they need to hit back by becoming such a highly reputable brand that anyone reading the review with half a brain would instantly dismiss it as being false.

    • Norm Miller

      That is just not realistic though. I could not tell you one bit the name of any local carpet cleaning business. There is no way small businesses can reach the level of reputation you are describing to overcome the vastness of the internet. I bet you everyone in that carpet cleaning business is focused on job 1, cleaning carpets. They would not be able to afford the team it would take to become so well known that people reading random reviews could so easily dismiss the fake ones. I know a local restaurant and I go there pretty regularly for over 20 years. I have, well, at least half a brain. However they get a string of negative reviews, and I honestly can’t tell you if they are false or not.

      I think the question is not do they have the right to place any kind of review, but should they have to stand behind the review they wish to leave.

    • Michael Sassone

      You’re missing the point Michael. What Yelp is doing is extorting small businesses by either placing false comments or removing positive comments or both! This happened to me the DAY AFTER I told them to stop harassing me with repeated phone calls and emails!!
      They are doing this under federal protection and so far no one has been able to stop them….hopefully that ends soon with the impending law suit.

  • Scott McKirahan

    All such sites should be required verify and post the identities of the reviewers. Stand behind your words and review or SHUT UP! I absolutely think internet sites should be held liable for any anonymous content posted that is defamatory to a business. It is the very definition of “liable” and internet sites shouldn’t have a shield that the rest of the media world can’t hide behind.

  • Sanjay

    every site has its drawbacks and plus point and the reviewers are write comments according to their thinking. I feel this is not false.

    • Joe

      What you feel is irrelevant. I am a Digital Marketer and i know for a FACT that 85% of small/median size businesses I encounter on a regular basis have been harrassed by yelp at one point in time. I couldnt tell you how many similar stories I’ve heard about yelp falsely rreviewing a business. Just last week Joe a small business owner told me that he got pitched by yelp. Joe decided to think about yelp services because they refused to give him full details on his customer reviews. One month later, Joe sees 5 negative yelp reviews posted during spring break… Joe is stunned because he’s been closed since Jan and the reviews are stated for the month of March.
      Yelp is bullshit and needs to dissappear.

    • Grant Barnard

      Not every site will let just anybody use very simple tactics to leave numerous fake reviews when the reviewer cannot prove they were even a customer. Nobody should be able to destroy a business without divulging their identity. Companies have a right to “face their accusers” especially when the company is usually under 20 employees that is getting destroyed.

      Don’t the employees of the company deserve to keep their jobs without that job being destroyed by a jealous competitor?

      Notice how when I say, “Yelp is bad for business and the economy as a whole by letting competitors leave fake reviews”, I also leave my name.

      So what about that is false? Why is it right for Yelp to use these tactics? Its Not!

    • Michael Sassone

      What they did to me was just plain DIRTY! All of my positive reviews were removed to their “Filtered” category THE DAY AFTER I told their sales rep to stop bothering me! Coincidence? I THINK NOT!!! You obviously have not been affected by their tactics or you would not side with them.

  • Ric Desan

    People still bother with Yelp? Fraudulent doesnt begin to cover their douchbaggery!

  • TB

    Yelp has closed our business account because we refuse to advertise with them. They have tried repeatedly to force our company to advertise with them. After refusing to advertise with yelp, they have “filtered” or deleted all of our 20+ positive reviews, only to showcase any 1,2,3 star rating. Reviews by Ki. k and Monique. S are fake reviews by fake customers and, in our opinion, could work for yelp. Please check the “not recommended” reviews and you will see that they keep deleting this write up, and instantly delete any 4 or 5 star ratings only to keep any 1,2,3 star ratings. I will continue to post this message on OUR business page on Yelp, until Yelp removes our business listing, completely.

    Please be advised that at least 1/5 of reviews on yelp are fake ( Yelp keeps control of a business’s star ratings in order to extort money from businesses with promises of getting rid of, or filtering out any negative reviews, and only showcasing positive reviews, most of which are fake reviews by the company or by yelp team members. You will notice that most, if not all, companies that advertise on yelp have a 4 or 5 star rating, however, if you look under their “not recommended reviews” they have a lot of negative reviews, or the negative reviews have been deleted by yelp. If you were a business wanting to advertise on yelp, you would not want to showcase a 1 or 2 star rating. Yelp is a business, and must make a profit. Their profits are from advertising dollars, thus, if a business has a poor rating, they will not want to advertise on Yelp, so Yelp helps the business by taking their money and filtering out any negative reviews. As well, if a business has a 4-5 star rating without paying for advertising on Yelp, Yelp will extort money from that company by filtering out all of their positive reviews, showcasing any negative reviews, and in our opinion, going so far as to write fake negative reviews to extort the business into advertising with yelp.

    They have now closed our business account so that we are not able to leave any feedback on any reviews, and we have no control over our business on yelp. Yelp controls our business by controlling the number of stars we have, number of positive or negative reviews we have, and not allowing us to defend our business from these fake negative reviews.

    Please note that yelp has a rating of 2.5 stars on its own review site and you will see that most of their negative reviews are from business owners who are having the same issue as our business, yelp trying to extort advertising dollars from the business. The complaints are also from yelp reviewers who are trying to leave positive and negative reviews on businesses, but their reviews are being filtered for no reason other than that business has spent advertising dollars to have those negative reviews removed, or the business has not opted to spend their money or submit themselves to yelps extortion practices, so their positive reviews are being filtered.

    I asked yelp to reinstate our business account so that we can face our accusers and defend our business, but, because our answers to those reviews contain comments about Yelp’s faulty, fake “filtering” system, they have now banned us from yelp, however, have kept our business active on yelp in order to hurt our business. I have asked that our business be taken off of Yelp, however, they refuse.

    Please help us, and thousands and thousands of other businesses who have experienced yelps extortion practices by writing to yelp, and by joining the following websites:

    Please google “yelp extortion” and see hundreds of articles on yelp extortion practices. There are even articles from past yelp employees who have admitted to writing fake negative reviews on businesses to teach them a lesson or for fun.

    We have opened a case with the BBB, however, as you can see by googling “yelp BBB” cases are unresolved, and all have the same generic comments by yelp. The businesses are complaining about fake reviews and extortion. Yelp does not have any phone numbers or emails available for business to contact a yelp representative, except if you want to advertise with them.

    If you are serious about making a difference, then I urge all customer, yelpers and business owners please sign the petition at

    • Lourdes

      The same thing happened to us, Yelp was asking us to advertise and when we said NO, they delete all the reviews from our clients…
      Personally when I look for something in Yelp I never look the advertised ones that is the reason we didn’t want to advertise…

  • Small Business Joe

    Yelp is a harassing smaller businesses – some businesses are getting reviews from people that aren’t even actual customers of the business. Yelp also filters most positive reviews

  • anonymous

    I believe that free speech is not related to anonymity. Upon request, perhaps by subpoena, Yelp should be required to reveal the identities of all reviewers. Revealing the identities is not related to free speech. A person who makes a false review is liable for defamation. Denying businesses access to the identities denies the businesses the chance to seek remedy for false reviews. Reviewers should not be able to anonymously defame businesses. Defamation is not protected by free speech. What Yelp is doing is allowing people to anonymously defame businesses without remedy and that is in violation of the business’ due process rights to seek remedies when a false review is posted. Yelp is well-known for false reviews and it is a crime to allow Yelp to hide behind free speech rights to perpetuate and protect tortious actions.

  • Michael Sassone

    I am a small business owner and have been complaining about the tactics that Yelp has been using against my restaurant for the last year. We had 5 positive reviews and only 1 negative review when we opened last February…..unfortunately, all of my positive reviews were taken down and put into a “Filtered” category once I asked the sales rep to stop harassing me to advertise with their company. Amazingly, this happened THE DAY AFTER I told them to leave me alone and only the one negative comment remained until I called and threatened to file a law suit. This is pure and simple extortion and I can only hope that the supreme court realizes what they are doing to damage small business owners like myself. Does anyone wonder why they only have federal protection with regard to reviewing small businesses and NOT large companies? I wonder if money has anything to do with that??

  • Rob Fontano

    Yelp utilizes some very dubious filters where certain reviews are valid and others are not or are hidden. They claim this is based on a users prior Yelp activity, but that does not seem to apply to negative reviews where those are almost always valid, while first time or sporadic yelp users positive reviews are not deemed valid.

  • Corey Willey

    This intrigues me and I can’t wait to see what the ruling is. As a business owner I would be furious if it turns out Yelp is actually posting fake reviews. However, is this just a business owner/owners grumbling because the people shared a terrible expereince that everyone can see. 10 years ago this wasn’t a problem for, people could do a bad job from time to time and no one would know. Now if you mess up once it could literally destroy your career, company and life all at once.

  • Makenzie Hardy

    I absolutely think that they should remove fake reviews, but they never will. I had a medical client tried to get a negative review removed from their Yelp account because it was complaining about a service that they didn’t even offer. I went through all the steps submitting it to Yelp, but they wouldn’t remove it. Very frustrating. If it really is Yelp leaving these reviews on pages who won’t advertise, then I hope they finally get caught and punished.

  • Sam M

    They should at least have some sort of grievance program like the Better Business Bureau that allows for business owners who have received bad reviews to try to solve a complaint. That way the customer has to prove that they in fact used the service either with a receipt or some other form of proof. Otherwise there is nothing stopping people from posting negative reviews about all their competitors.

  • Chlow Tuttle

    I think the reviewer should identify himself/herself. Yelp is wrong. Yelp does discriminate if you don’t advertise. I have a small bed and breakfast and Yelp has filtered (removed) half of the reviews that have been posted, all positive I might add. The reviews were legitimate.

  • Damon Rutherford

    It will be interesting to see what Google’s response to this situation is. I bet that they would love an legitimate excuse to demote Yelp in their SERPs.

  • Howard Simons

    Our business has been severely damaged by Yelp.
    We had ratings of 4 & 5 stars up to Sept. 2013.
    In April 2013 a Sale’s rep. from Yelp asked us to
    subscribed to Yelp for upgrade services for $500.
    per month. We declined and ask her to check back in Sept 2013. In July of 2013 we had 5 or 6 customer reviews rating our work at 4 & 5. Sometime in June we had a nonsense type of revue with a 1 rating. This was not from a regular
    patron, but from one of Yelps enlisted & encourage individuals to give bad views by Yelps posse.

    At that time the only view shown was that 1 star
    & all the other legitimate reviews with our patrons
    full names shown were blocked from view.

    In early Sept. We were contacted again by Yelps
    NY city sales office to solicit our subscription
    payments. It started at $500 /month which we declined and she then asked for $250 / month,
    and she would be able to fix our display to
    allow all our reviews to show, and average
    out the star ratings to include all our listed
    reviews . We declined to enroll in this payment
    plan of Yelp’s and have suffered the consequences
    of Yelps control of which reviews are shown,
    depending on whether a business pays up
    or suffers if it doesn’t..

    I voiced this on a Yelp forum last year
    (fall of 2013 ) & shortly thereafter Yelp
    change the display listing with a link
    that is practically invisible to see that
    Will that allow the viewer to an disclaimer page
    stating that Yelp does not recommend
    the following reviews, etc , and then has a link
    to the blocked views.

    This is totally controlled by Yelp, with all their
    hype about this so called filter.
    I was involved in large scale computer programs
    many years ago, a Yelps defense stating their
    program filter of each review is nothing but a legal smokescreen for them to present to the courts
    as most Judges will not have the software understandings to see through this disguise.

    It is very apparent that if a business pays and a computer program for that business will have a bit set to incorporate all reviews and average out the stars, etc.

    No pay, only the Yelps posse bad review will be highlighted,
    causing that business to suffer a loss of business,
    and income, even though they may have
    many excellent reviews from legitimate patrons
    listed but manipulated and blocked from the Viewers by Yelp to pressure the Business to pay up.
    I was the Manager for ITT at the US Dept. Of
    State in Washington DC in charge of the Maintenance and Programming liaison
    for 7 years, in the
    Office of Telegraphic Communications and
    was directly involved with all aspects of computer
    possessing of every message sent or received
    world wide by the Dept. Of State.


  • http://YPYelpandoranyothersitepostingfalsedefamatoryandslander Jody

    Where does free-speech protect blatant lies about anyone. Defamatory Slander are most surely not protected by free-speech.
    All these internet or for that matter anyone who post defamatory or slanderest remarks should be as responsible as the person or persons posting. I myself am prepared to take them to court likewise.

  • Ann Lansky

    I am a physician and just had a conversation with my ophthalmologist, Dr. Tara Starr, Pinole, CA on this. My doctor’s business dropped by 75% after Yelp contacted her to advertise for $700.00 per month in each of her two locations and she refused to. She had over 15 five star reviews and every single one of them was filtered out. But Yelp filtered in three one star reviews. In fact, every time she had a five star review, within 48 hours it was filtered out. I know this, because I wrote her a review and was shocked and angered to see my true heart felt reviews were filtered out. Then a competitor doctor ( Dr. Scott Lee in Pinole, California who is well known for making disparaging remarks about all his colleagues to advance his own causes) in the same town saw two of her patients when she was out of town and lied to the patients about how they were treated and used them to write negative remarks about my doctor. One of the patients was a narcotics addict and was likely given prescriptions for drugs as a favor to write negative comments about my doctor who I have known for 14 years and she is a fantastic eye doctor and an amazing surgeon. The reviewers had lied about my doctor. What is amazing is that I wrote same five star reviews for Dr. Star that I wrote for my dermatologist. The one for Dr. Star was filtered out and the one for my dermatologist stayed. Since I am also an MD, I asked my dermatologist if she was paying Yelp and she said that she was. So here was my test. Yelp extorted from me starting in 2011. Their filter is totally controlled by whether a business pays them or not. If the business does not pay, they apply their filter that takes out every single positive review. If the business pays them well, they filter out the poor reviews. I was a subject of this and luckily I retired and stopped paying them. I want the businesses to know the truth and go after Yelp who is making hundreds of millions by becoming an Internet Mafia. This is not about free speech. It is about two brothers( the Stopplemans) figuring out how to extort money from businesses. Businesses, at least can change their names and move on, but Doctors cannot. Yelp should not be allowed to review professionals. It is just too corrupt to do so. It is a horrible world when hard working, competent professionals become victimized by greedy individuals and corporations who squeeze them every step of the way.

  • Jason

    I run a business. Yelp just threatened to shut down our ability to reply to reviews for stating “Please also see our filtered reviews. Yelps review filter does not filter for accuracy but filters based on how much content a user provides Yelp.” So free speech except when stating facts about Yelp’s filter?