Reading an online review before deciding where to travel, what to eat, which movie to watch, or why businesses may deserve your money more than others, is a helpful tool, accessible to all with a quick search on the Internet. Review platforms like Zomato, Trip Advisor and Yelp, are familiar examples.

Of course, just as quickly, people can write reviews. Authors may be motivated by an enthusiasm to help others, or to discuss bad experiences, in an attempt to deter others from using a service or business. If it’s the latter, then such authors may be treading a thin line between stating their opinion and defaming a business. So what are the options for businesses that receive damaging reviews?

Bold Opinion or Defamation?

A small business can take action in defamation over material published on online review sites. To bring an action in defamation, your business must employ less than ten employees, to be classified as a small business.

You may be able to claim if you can show that:

  • A comment or publication was communicated to a third party (it is enough that it was published to at least one other person);
  • The comment or publication identifies your business;
  • The comment or publication is damaging to your business’s reputation;
  • The comment or publication was malicious; and
  • It has been less than one year from the date the comment or publication was published.

Proving the comment or publication was malicious will likely be the most onerous criteria to meet. This entails showing that the person who wrote the review was not genuinely writing about their experience but instead had the intention to damage the reputation of the business.

Has Your Business Been Reviewed?

If you have received a damaging online review and you are uncertain whether it is capable of being malicious, you should act quickly. Before you take any serious steps, start by contacting the website which has published the review to ask that them to remove the material.

What is the Responsibility of Review Platforms?

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, review platforms should be responsive to business concerns and react swiftly if evidence suggests that a review does not reflect a genuinely held opinion. Although review platforms do not need to remove harmful content simply because a reviewed business makes a complaint.

Key Takeaways

When writing an online review:

  • Do not publish it if you have bad intentions or a hidden motive;
  • Imagine your audience is the whole world (after all, communications published on the internet can be spread very quickly);
  • Ensure that it is a truthful and accurate reflection of your experience;
  • Seek legal advice if you have been accused of defamation;

If you are a small business:

  • Be vigilant of online content that identifies your business. There are time limitations for bringing claims in defamation, and it is always better to act quickly;
  • If you have fallen victim to a harmful online review that you think is malicious, ask the review platform to remove it, and if unsuccessful, seek legal advice.

Online reviews are often relied upon for a range of different reasons and are often a low-cost means of making an informed purchasing decision.

However not maintaining the integrity of online reviews may cause small businesses to face more negative impacts than positive. Fortunately, there are frameworks available that call into question whether an online review has in fact crossed the line, and become a potential action for defamation. If you have questions about online reviews, contact our business lawyers.

Annie Gunn

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