With over half of travelers refusing to book a hotel room until they read a guest review, online reviews are becoming one of the most trusted sources of information for hotel guests. But not all reviews are created equal, nor are they always truthful.
At Michelman & Robinson, LLP I advocate on behalf of clients in the hospitality industry, particularly in handling online content management issues. I work with my clients to effectively respond to defamatory and/or infringing content posted on social media and other third-party websites.
In order to successfully navigate the the ever-changing legal landscape, it is important to know the necessary laws and follow a few best practices.
Understanding the Yelp Law
California Civil Code § 1670.8, popularly known as the Yelp Law, went into effect in California in 2014. (Moreover, a similar federal bill, known as the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015, is currently pending before Congress with bipartisan support, and is expected to be signed into law.)
California’s Yelp Law has two important elements:
1. It prevents businesses from requiring consumers to agree in advance that they will not review the goods or services they received from that business.
2. It also prevents businesses from penalizing consumers who leave negative reviews.
This has changed the dynamics of the typical online “clickthrough” agreement, in which companies present online terms and conditions to their customers. Previously, such clickthrough agreements may have contained terms in which consumers agreed to refrain from disparaging the business. Under the Yelp Law, consumer contracts containing non-disparagement clauses are unlawful.
Achieving Yelp Law Compliance
First, if you still have any non-disparagement clauses in your consumer agreements, remove these clauses immediately.
Second, be aware that the statute doesn’t define what is considered to be an impermissible “penalty.” Without such clarity, a court faced with the issue may employ a very broad definition. When responding to these online reviews, ensure that you are not giving the impression that you are in any way penalizing the consumer for his or her review.
Statutory penalties for violation of the Yelp Law are a maximum of $2,500 for the first violation; $5,000 for subsequent violations; and up to $10,000 for willful, intentional or reckless violations.
Responding to Negative Reviews
If a negative review of your property pops up on a third party website, you may be tempted to seek its removal ASAP, by any means necessary. But threatening the review platform with legal action is usually an ineffective (or even counterproductive) strategy, because many such sites have broad legal immunity for hosting user-generated content. You may still have a right of action against the individual reviewer who actually posted the defamatory content. However, you first need to consider the content:
If the review is a subjective opinion (e.g., “this hotel is the worst”), then it is typically non-actionable.
If a review contains false information about a property (e.g., “this hotel is infested with bedbugs”), litigation may be an option.
Even if the statement itself is actionable, litigation is a difficult path forward and is best reserved for reviews that are causing significant financial harm. For other negative reviews, consider incorporating a number of best practices when responding, including:
- Post a response as soon as possible. Remember that the longer it takes you to respond, the more potential guests will become discouraged from visiting your property.
- Thank the reviewer for their feedback. It will reinforce the fact that your hotel is engaged and attentive to customer complaints.
- Acknowledge and express sympathy for the experience. For example, “We are so sorry you had a bad experience.”
- Note any changes you have made as a result of the complaint. Doing so demonstrates your commitment to superb customer experience.
By taking these steps, you are more likely to experience a positive outcome; you may even convert a complaining guest into a loyal customer in the process.
This article is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.
If you are looking for more ways to handle negative reviews, get Sojern’s latest eBook on Managing Guest Expectations.
Ilse Scott is an experienced attorney at Michelman & Robinson, LLP (M&R), a national law firm with offices in California, Chicago and New York. Ms. Scott focuses her practice on complex litigation and intellectual property matters involving trade secrets, business torts and contracts, and trademark and copyright infringement. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-882-7770.