Blogs & Comment

Online review sites allow bad customers to become blackmailers

Sites like Yelp are being weaponized by unscrupulous clients who shake down businesses for discounts—or else

“People love us on Yelp” sticker, but with “hate“ in place of “love”

(Steven Johnson & Courtney Horowitz)

About a year ago, Toronto contractor Josh Smith wrapped up a bathroom reno for a client who appeared to be thrilled with the results. There were happy handshakes all around, even a few celebratory beers—standard stuff for a business that has long enjoyed high levels of customer satisfaction.

A week after finishing the job, Smith (not his real name) did a routine check of his company’s page on a popular contractor review site and discovered that the most recent—and most prominent—entry was a total evisceration from that same client. The post asserted Smith was slow, his work was shoddy, and the end result was unacceptable.

Smith called to ask whether there had been a mistake—had he somehow misread the home owner’s apparent delight? No, the bathroom was great, came the reply. So Smith asked that the bad review be deleted. Certainly, said the client—if Smith would agree to take $1,000 off the project’s tally.

Smith knew it was blackmail. He also knew he’d take the $1,000 hit. When asked why, he answers with resigned pragmatism: “I live and die by my reviews. I can’t afford that kind of blemish to my reputation.” He pauses. “I mean, what would you do?”

His conundrum is one that businesses now face with disturbing frequency. Peeved customers have always been able to negatively affect a business, but the web magnifies their influence exponentially. In the age of Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon, anyone with an Internet connection can air a grievance with a few keystrokes, and it can be catastrophic for the businesses affected, especially for smaller players with limited resources.

Of all the many problems dogging review sites—businesses submitting glowing write-ups about themselves, dubious algorithms that subtly reward advertisers, the fact that people are generally only motivated to write a review when they’ve had an extreme experience—reviewer extortion is the most dangerous. It can be costly to the business at virtually no risk to the blackmailer. A 2014 study found that 85% of people read fewer than 10 reviews when determining whether they trust a business; 67% read six or fewer. Basically, the average person will make a snap judgment about a company based on what shows up on the first screen of its Facebook page. Ergo, a rotten review has disproportionate currency.

And scammers know it. Smith’s duplicitous client was no sociopathic outlier: Around the world, businesses—especially those in hospitality or customer service— are reporting an uptick in people asking for perks and payoffs under threat of a nasty writeup. Everyone agrees there’s a problem; some sites, like TripAdvisor, even have a formal process for reporting review blackmail. What’s unclear is what to do about it.

Ethicists might say to ignore an extortive request, warning that succumbing to blackmail creates a slippery slope. That’s laudable moral ground, but not responding leaves a vacuum almost as damning as a bad review. Customer service experts might recommend “engaging” by posting an apologetic response to every review with a whiff of negativity. It may be a smart strategy, but only for companies with the resources to provide timely responses. Lawyers might suggest pressing charges, but good luck getting anywhere without concrete proof that a review was both unfounded and caused the business harm. There’s no slam dunk solution.

There’s something to admire in the cheeky approach some businesses are choosing to make light of their bad buzz. Take California’s Botto Bistro, which recently attempted to sabotage Yelp (with which it has a long time beef ) by offering a 50% discount in exchange for a one-star review. Such a stunt might seem gimmicky, but it allows businesses to reframe and redirect conversations over which they have decreasing control. Done right, it can yield some positive press, too—Botto Bistro’s campaign made international news. Until fraudulent reviewers are held accountable, a creative approach is a heck of a lot more palatable than paying bribes.