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Yelp resists request to reveal anonymous reviewers

The Yelp Inc. logo in the window of a restaurant in New York on March 1, 2012 (© Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images)A Virginia carpet cleaning company wants to find out the identities of seven people who posted negative reviews about it, which it says are false and defamatory, on Yelp (YELP). But the consumer review site isn’t passing along those names.

Over the objections of San Francisco-based Yelp, a court in Alexandria, Va., ordered it last year to provide the information requested by the carpet cleaner, which also alleges that its online critics probably are working for competitors, according to Consumerist. Other reviewers had posted similar complaints about the plaintiff and were not sued.

“Yelp has yet to oblige, but has asked the plaintiff to name any reviewers it believes were employed or connected to competitors so that it might investigate,” Consumerist says.  “However, the carpet cleaner has not taken Yelp up on this offer.” A spokesperson for Yelp couldn’t immediately be reached.

Despite the threat to users’ anonymity, reviewers certainly aren’t shying away from Yelp. The site carried more than 39 million reviews in the quarter, and monthly unique visitors jumped 43% to about 102 million. Yelp shares have surged more than 61% this year as the company reported better-than-expected​<!– results in the most recent quarter.
Setting aside a discussion on the merits of the carpet-cleaner case, it does underscore how seriously businesses, particularly small ones, take user online user reviews. Consumers have wide latitude in what they can say, but the protection of free speech is not absolute. That was certainly not intention of the founding fathers.

Some users may not know their limits. For instance, you can say a restaurant’s food is bad and its service is slow. But the restaurant has every right to sue people who falsely claim that its kitchen is infested with rats. Yelp makes this very point on its website, where it warns people of the “legal consequences if you post false information.” 

Companies track consumer reviews very carefully on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List (ANGI) because they’re eager to protect their reputations and integrity of their brands. Understandably, many people post reviews anonymously because they feel more comfortable expressing themselves if their names are left off a review.

“Anonymous and pseudonymous reviews are definitely part of the large review ecosystem today,” says CEO and founder Michael Fertik in a statement to MSN money. He declined to comment on Yelp or this case, but he added, “it is increasingly clear that identified (nonanonymous) reviews carry higher credibility and value for readers.”

People should feel free to comment anonymously, but they need to be aware of their actions’ potential consequences.

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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