Yelp Finally Defeats a False Advertising Lawsuit Over Its Review Functionality–Demetriades v. Yelp
This is a long-running case against Yelp initiated by a restaurant in Mammoth Lakes. I first blogged the case in 2013 when the lower court granted Yelp’s anti-SLAPP motion; I also blogged it in 2014 when the appellate court reversed the anti-SLAPP motion.
Initially, the plaintiff implicitly targeted how Yelp gathered and presented reviews—grounds that dangerously flirted with Section 230. Eventually, the case devolved into a relatively standard UCL/FAL case claiming that Yelp falsely advertised how its review functions worked. Unlike many other plaintiffs against Yelp, this plaintiff got into discovery and reached a bench trial in early 2019. Like the other plaintiffs, however, it still lost the case. The court explained the ruling and addressed various post-trial matters in a December 2019 ruling, which is the ruling I’m covering in this blog post. The case is teed up for another trip to the appellate court if the plaintiff chooses to do so.
The case addressed these “Challenged Statements”:
- “Yelp uses the filter to give consumers the most trusted reviews.”
- “All reviews that live on people’s profile pages go through a remarkable filtering process that takes the reviews that are the most trustworthy and from the most established sources and displays them on the business page. This keeps less trustworthy reviews out so that when it comes time to make a decision you can make that using information and insights that are actually helpful.”
- “Rest assured that our engineers are working to make sure that whatever is up there is the most unbiased and accurate information you will be able to find about local businesses.”
- “Yelp is always working to do as good a job as possible on a very complicated task–only showing the most trustworthy and useful content out there.”
- “Yelp has an automated filter that suppresses a small portion of reviews – it targets those suspicious ones you see on other sites.”
I don’t love some of Yelp’s statements. As I’ve repeatedly lamented, no UGC service can really claim to be “unbiased” because all publication decisions are inherently biased. In fairness, Yelp made these statements in 2010, when “unbiased” claims were more common (but no more advisable). See, e.g,, this Angie’s List case. Statements involving the trustworthiness of reviews are most likely puffery, but “trust” is a tricky marketing word that is clearly designed to bolster the credibility of UGC despite the high risks of not-credible items.
Despite the possible problems with Yelp’s statements, the evidence didn’t support the plaintiffs’ contentions. Among the court’s findings:
- “with regard to giving consumers ‘the most trusted reviews’…, Multiversal did not establish that the ‘unfiltered’ reviews posted by Yelp (i.e., those reviews that are not on the ‘filtered’ page) were anything less than ‘most trusted reviews’…or that consumers perceived that Yelp’s filter did not give them ‘the most trusted reviews….’” It helped that Yelp’s marketing collateral self-defined in some detail what it meant by “trust.”
- “the evidence did not establish that the unfiltered reviews Yelp posted on the business pages came from less trustworthy reviews or from less established sources, or that consumers perceived that Yelp’s filter did not take the reviews that were the most trustworthy and from the most established sources and display them on the business page.”
- “the evidence at trial did not support the claim that Yelp was not always working to give consumers the most trustworthy and unbiased reviews”
- During the relevant time period, “Yelp’s automated filter suppressed approximately 25% of the reviews, thereby leaving approximately 75% of the reviews on the main pages of the business profiles.” The evidence didn’t really clarify if 25% constitutes a “small portion” of reviews as Yelp had claimed.
The court also said that Yelp lacked the requisite intent to deceive:
This is not a simple case of false advertising where, for example, a statement is made about a product (e. g., it cures diabetes) that was false, and the maker of the statement knew it was false or had reasonable grounds to believe it was false because the product contained no ingredients that would cure diabetes. This case involves a novel way of collecting millions of internet reviews from people, making them available to the public, and hi-lighting the ones that the provider believed would be the most trustworthy, unbiased and accurate based upon technology that was designed to exclude robots and people who were self-interested or inexperienced. None of the evidence presented at the trial showed anything nefarious or duplicitous on the part of Yelp in connection with the assertions made in the Challenged Statements. There was no evidence presented that Yelp had no basis for believing its system could do what was claimed in the Challenged Statements. Even if Multiversal had proven that the Challenged Statements somehow were false or misleading, the evidence at trial did not show that Yelp knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that the Challenged Statements were false or misleading.
* * *
I doubt this ruling will quell the Yelp-haters who are convinced that Yelp jiggers its algorithm to favor advertisers and punish non-advertisers–but it should. The plaintiff got what every Yelp-hater has been craving: a trial before a judge to present all of the evidence of Yelp’s misdeeds. The fact that it proved to be a fairly routine win for Yelp at trial implicitly undermines all of the innuendo and speculation about Yelp’s motives. As the court expressly said, “None of the evidence presented at the trial showed anything nefarious or duplicitous on the part of Yelp in connection with the assertions made in the Challenged Statements.”
It took nearly a decade for this case to reach a full trial, only for the judge to conclude that this case never had any merit. I remain fascinated by cases that lose an anti-SLAPP motion and yet fail in the end. In those situations, society would benefit a lot from using procedural fast lanes to save many years of litigation costs.
Case citation: Demetriades v. Yelp, Inc., Case No. BC 484055 (Cal. Superior Ct. Dec. 6, 2019)
Selected Prior Blog Posts on Yelp
- Yelp Defeats Businesses’ “Right to Be Forgotten” Claims—Spiegelman v. Yelp
- The California Supreme Court Didn’t Ruin Section 230 (Today)–Hassell v. Bird
- Yelp, Twitter and Facebook Aren’t State Actors–Quigley v. Yelp
- How Should a Lawyer Respond to a Yelp Review Calling Him “Worst. Ever.”?–Spencer v. Glover
- Ninth Circuit Criticizes Attempts to Plead Around Section 230–Kimzey v. Yelp
- The Internet Rallies Against A Terrible Section 230 Ruling–Hassell v. Bird
- Yelp Isn’t Liable For User-Submitted Photos Of Businesses–Albert v. Yelp
- Yelp Forced To Remove Defamatory Reviews–Hassell v. Bird
- Stockholders Can’t Sue Yelp Because Of Fake Reviews
- Court Says Yelp Reviewers Aren’t Employees
- Ninth Circuit Says Yelp Doesn’t Extort Businesses–Levitt v. Yelp
- Does Yelp Have The ‘Most Trusted Reviews’? A Court Wants To Know More
- Yelp Wins Another Section 230 Case–Kimzey v. Yelp
- “Wiggin Out” Over a Wig Purchase Dispute Leads to Online Defamation – Sanders v. Walsh
- Yelp Gets Another Anti-SLAPP Victory in Lawsuit Over Consumer Review—Bernath v. Tabitha J.
- Blasting Your Landlord Online? Pick Your Words Wisely
- Dentist’s Defamation Lawsuit Against Yelp Preempted by Section 230–Braverman v. Yelp
- Building Owner Can’t Discover the Identity of Tenant Who Writes Bashing Yelp Review
- Yelp Defeats Legal Challenge to Its User Review Filter
- Yelp Gets Complete Win in Advertiser “Extortion” Case–Levitt v. Yelp
- Dentist Pays Sizable Penalty for Not Knowing 47 USC 230–Wong v. Jing
- Yelp Beats “Implied Extortion”/”Pay-to-Play” Lawsuit in Round #1–Levitt v. Yelp
- Dentist Review on Yelp Gets Partial Anti-SLAPP Protection–Wong v. Jing
- Yelp Wins 47 USC 230 Dismissal of Dentist’s Lawsuit–Reit v. Yelp
Reviewing this list, it’s really a spectacular track record of defense wins. After the Hassell v. Bird Supreme Court ruling fixed the outlier appellate ruling in that case, the main remaining outlier was the 2014 Demetriades appellate anti-SLAPP ruling, and Yelp’s 2019 trial win fixed that. Kudos to the entire Yelp legal team, and especially Aaron Schur, for their decade of accomplishments.