Can you really trust that online review?

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Have you heard about the Italian place in the Bay area where “the pizza arrived at the table with a dead rat under the cheese”?

That would be Botto Italian Bistro in Redwood, Calif. This unique eatery actively encourages negative reviews on Yelp, even going as far as rewarding customers who leave a one-star review with 50% off a pizza!

Why would Botto do this? To call attention to the farce that online reviews have become.

Read more: How to get trusted referrals for home repairs

A closer look at the problems with online reviews

There are more than 100 million reviews on Yelp alone. But the website has long had a problem with businesses writing fake reviews or paying others to do so.

Just last month, the New York Times reports that Yelp issued 59 new ‘Consumer Alerts,’ which are notices to make consumers aware that someone may be trying to artificially inflate the rating for a given business. 

That’s why Botto took the opposite tack: Instead of trying to pay for positive reviews from phony reviewers, they actively encourage customers to slam the restaurant.

Amazingly, the unorthodox approach has paid off. “It may sound to you like a suicide mission, but our business is up,” the co-owner and chef told the New York Times.

online reviews

Reviews of consumer goods have special hazards

Meanwhile, academics have written articles noting that there is a ‘substantial disconnect’ in the online reviewing world, particularly with consumer goods rather than restaurants.


Specifically, some academics have argued that in leaving reviews online, people tend to give more weight to things like price and brand than to objective measures of the quality of what’s being reviewed. 

So maybe we’re putting too much validity into a metric that’s too subjective to be useful. Then you factor in the prevalence of bogus reviews and it’s hard to know which reviews are trustworthy and which are bogus.

How to complain online and not get sued

One troubling trend in online reviewing has been the chance that you’ll get sued for what you post about a business online. This has been a problem going as far back as 2009.

To lessen the likelihood that you’ll be sued for your negative review, Consumer Reports suggests you keep the following pointers in mind:

  • Know your state’s law regarding SLAPP suits. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) are designed to threaten you with expensive and time-intensive litigation to deter you from posting a negative review. By knowing your state’s laws, you can understand the parameters of what you legally can and can’t say in your review.
  • Make sure you didn’t sign a confidentiality agreement. While not common, some doctors do stipulate patients sign such an agreement before treatment. has a ‘Wall of Shame’ of doctors who have adopted this practice. Avoid them at all costs.
  • Stick strictly to the facts with your complaint. Keep it short, simple and factual; nothing more and nothing less.
  • Cool off. Write your complaint out and then take 24 hours to reflect on it before you post. Make sure your vitriol isn’t crowding out the facts in what you’ve written.
  • Realize that your veil of privacy can be pierced. You may think you’re writing a fairly anonymous review, but it is possible that information about your identity, IP address, and location could be subpoenaed at the request of an offended business. The privacy policy of the website where you post your comments isn’t likely to protect you either.
  • Know what to do if you are sued. In the worst case if you are sued, you may be covered by your homeowner’s policy for defamatory statements. Check with your insurer to see.  
  • Remember, it all comes back to sticking strictly to the facts. Never post libelous comments that disparage anyone’s character. That’s the best way to stay out of trouble.

Read more: How to post a hotel review online without getting any blowback

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