The Internet has made reviewers of us all. Every positive or negative consumer experience can be shared immediately. The law of averages suggests that in the long run these reviews, when taken together, will provide an accurate reflection of consumer experiences. However, that does not absolve individual reviewers of certain ethical standards and obligations.
With 85 percent of consumers reading Yelp, reviewers have an obligation to be honest, disclosing any bias or conflict of interest. Online reviewers may not be bound by the Association of Food Journalists’ code of ethics, which states that writers must use their real names, fact-check their info, and visit a restaurant multiple times—or even the Food Blog Code of Ethics, but online reviewers should adhere to the following ethical standards:
1. Disclose clearly if you received payment, freebies, or other compensation
The FTC requires bloggers to disclose any compensation. To not do so is breaking the lawbut, interpretations of that vary. One amateur fashion blogger I follow indicates clothes were gifts with a small “c/o [brand]” at the end of the post in question. But “c/o” might not be understood by casual readers to mean, “They sent me this, so I’m giving them free publicity.” I know a blogger’s gotta eat, but reviewers should go out of their way to be transparent. Even if you technically aren’t breaking any laws, being shady about free stuff is a good way to ruin your reputation and lose readers.
Yelp reviewers should adhere to the same standard of disclosure, but sometimes the lines are blurry. Yelp Elite members, for instance, regularly are invited to restaurants and bars for free tastings. I’m one such member, but I’ve never gone because it felt underhanded to me – “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and all that. At my first event last month, I asked more experienced Yelpers if we were, indeed, expected to write glowing reviews in return for free mini-pies and cocktails (even though that had never been explicitly stated), and the sentiment was yes. A simple: “I ate for free, thanks to a Yelp event,” in a review would probably suffice, but it still made me uncomfortable.
2. Don’t praise a business if you’re personally connected
Whole Foods’ CEO, John Mackey, caught a lot of flak in 2007 when it was revealed that he’d been extoling Whole Foods on Internet forums for the past eight years under the name “Rahodeb” (an anagram of his wife Deborah’s name). The New York Times reported that Mackey wrote more than 1,100 posts on Yahoo Finance’s online bulletin board, many gushing about Whole Foods’ stock prices. (He even complimented his own appearance when another commenter insulted it, writing, “I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute!”)
An NBC broadcast at the time mentioned the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, section 10 of which prohibits “fraud, manipulation, or insider trading.” Mackey’s actions certainly seem to have been manipulative. As former SEC chair Harvey Pitt told NBC, “There’s nothing per se illegal about [Mackey’s actions], but it’s very clear to me, if you’re not willing to do it under your own name, you really have to ask why you’re doing it at all.”
Mackey later defended himself by saying, “I never intended any of those postings to be identified with me.” Well, obviously. Yet the truth came out, making Mackey look dishonest, untrustworthy, and morally suspect. Not only was it unethical, but it also tainted the Whole Foods brand. Translation: If your sister’s vintage boutique needs more customers, don’t write her a fake Yelp review.
3. Similarly, don’t smear a brand or restaurant out of spite
Mackey also dissed Whole Foods’ then-competitor Wild Oats in 2005, writing this on a Yahoo stock message board as Rahodeb:
Would Whole Foods buy OATS [Wild Oats’ stock symbol]? Almost surely not at current prices. What would they gain? OATS locations are too small...[Wild Oats management] clearly doesn’t know what it is doing...OATS has no value and no future.
Only two years later, Whole Foods was buying Wild Oats for $565 million in a merger challenged by the FTC. Was Mackey trying to drive people away from Wild Oats so his company could buy it at a cheaper price? Only Mackey knows, but it doesn’t make him look very good.
On a personal level, a former friend of mine was bitter toward a former employer after she quit. “I’d write them a bad Yelp review, but they’d know it was me,” she said before giving me a meaningful look. “YOU should write one about how they’re so awful!” she said, only half joking, even though I’d never used the company’s services. (I didn’t.)
I can’t be the only one this has happened to. In fact, a look at any business’ filtered Yelp reviews – the ones you don’t see unless you go hunting for them and enter a Captcha, a type of challenge-response test used in computing to determine whether or not the user is human), shows that fake bad reviews (likely by competitors and their families) are all too common. If you’ve got beef with a company, personal or professional, don’t let it color your actual experience there. No inventing cockroaches to scare diners away from your rival café! Sure, write a negative review if you received legitimately poor service or products, but take it up with management if it’s a bigger issue.
4. Realize the ramifications your review could have
At the risk of sounding overdramatic, these are real people here; real families’ livelihoods are at stake. In an earlier piece for the Center for Digital Ethics, Kristen Kuchar noted that the addition of a single star in a Yelp rating could potentially boost business by 5 to 9 percent, according to Harvard Business School. Should one irate customer have the power to get a waiter fired or put a bistro out of business? Your words can live on even if you delete your review, and you never know the impact they could have on someone down the road.
The consumer mindset means we think opening our wallets entitles us to the royal treatment, but remember that everyone has bad days. If at all possible, visit a business more than once to get a more fully rounded view of the experience there. If nothing else, it’ll make your review more helpful to others.