Yelp.com, a popular website that consumers can use to post online, public reviews of their experiences using businesses, hasn’t exactly been popular among many small business owners. While reviewing restaurants seem to be popular with Yelp users, more and more reviews are being left for those in the service industry, including for Insurance Agencies.
A number of businesses have already filed lawsuits against Yelp, and at least one class action lawsuit against the company is underway. But small business court challenges have thus far not borne fruit for them: In a September 2014 decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against four small businesses who had accused Yelp of extortion and libel. The reasoning: Yelp certainly has a right to charge for advertising on the site, and consumers have a right to express their opinion about the businesses they use, in whatever form of media.
For its part, Yelp denies placing reviews in any particular order on the basis of whether a customer advertises or not. “Our recommendation software treats advertisers and non-advertisers exactly the same,” says the Yelp Support Center. You’ll find plenty of Yelp advertisers with negative reviews, and plenty of non-advertisers with five-star ratings across the board. Furthermore, there is zero relationship between the timing of when a review gets recommended and when a business decides to–or declines to–advertise.
Some business owners still suspect the review recommendation process on Yelp is manipulated, but if so, such has never been conclusively proven.
Meanwhile, courts have indicated that even if Yelp did manipulate reviews based on ad sales, the practice, in context, would amount to nothing more than “hard bargaining.” Courts are loath to insert themselves in the middle of bad review arguments, and the elements of the crime of extortion are generally construed quite strictly, sidestepping controversies over bad reviews. However, individual reviewers have been found liable for defamation for writing bad reviews. And a Virginia Court ordered Yelp to reveal the identities of other writers of bad reviews, so that they may be held accountable if they were never customers of the business and the reviews amounted to or libel.
Libel laws, however, provide broad protection to honest writers of bad reviews – by design. Legislatures did not want to write laws that would leave restaurant reviewers open to bad reviews. When it comes to libel and defamation claims, the burden of proof rests heavily on the complainant. The legal presumption is that the free expression of opinion is protected. Further, truth is an absolute defense against defamation: You cannot win a libel suit attacking a review or article because of statements that are, in fact, true, or statements that are purely opinion.
What Can You Do?
Insurance businesses have a unique set of challenges when it comes to managing their online reputation: A hundred claims can pay out with no problem and generate not a single positive review: One customer has trouble with a claim – even if the insurance was never supposed to cover them – and that’s the customer who will write your agency a scathing review.
There’s no way you can prevent or control that. But you can take steps to limit the effect of this selection bias:
1.) Be proactive in your communication and outreach. Call your clients. Use newsletters and direct mail and emails between calls. Let them hear from you regularly. If they’re quietly unhappy, opening the lines of communication makes it more likely that you’ll hear about the problem and have a chance to correct it before a bad Yelp review goes online.
2.) Make it easy for your happy clients to write a review. Include a link to your Yelp page on your newsletter or other correspondence. Put a Yelp icon on your website. If you’ve got ten 5-star reviews up on your site, one bad review isn’t going to hurt much. The key is to be proactive to encourage your happy clients to write reviews before the unhappy ones get a chance!
Note: InsuranceNewsletters.com now has an option for our clients that lets you include a Yelp icon on custom newsletters you create with us!
3.) The prime time for positive Yelp reviews is the same as that for referrals: Right after a successful policy delivery, and right after the prompt payment of a claim.
4.) Yelp allows you to respond to a bad review. Be proactive about monitoring your reviews, and respond swiftly to any negatives. Don’t let them stand without addressing them forthrightly and directly. Even negative reviews give you an opportunity to send a message and take the high ground.
5.) Encourage your clients to visit your page and “flag” the most useful reviews. You don’t have to tell them to flag the positive reviews and you don’t have to game the system. In the long run, the good agents and good agencies will have very strong reviews in the system. The weaker agencies and those with poor communication and customer service will struggle. As it should be!
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