If your business has ever received a negative review online, whether it be on social media, a marketplace, Google, or anywhere else online, it can be incredibly frustrating. Particularly when it is unwarranted or you have suspicions that it may be fake.
The good news is that you don’t always need to accept a review you consider to be false or unwarranted. As professionals who know how to deal with negative reviews online, we will share with you what are considered reasonable grounds to request a review be removed, the options you may have available to you, and the steps you can take to go about it.
When you first receive a negative online review
Your first instinct, especially if you disagree with the review, may be to delete it (where that is possible on the particular platforms). However, you cannot delete a review simply because it is negative. In Australia, deleting a negative review can be considered a breach of the Australia Consumer Law. Leaving only positive reviews whilst removing the negative ones can be considered misleading to customers.
However, you can get a negative review removed if it defames a third party or if it is misleading to customers in some way.
You may wish to respond to the review with courtesy and try to reach an amicable resolution with the customer that satisfies both sides. When doing this, avoid a spirited defence of your product or service in your response or on other forums. While an emotional response is understandable, getting into an online argument with the customer can cause more damage to your business than any negative review might.
In the event you aren’t able to address the customer’s concerns and resolve the matter, you may wish to request removal from the platform it was posted on. It may be possible to work with the platform itself to have the negative review removed as most platforms have policies prohibiting certain content. That is, content that is defamatory, discriminatory or otherwise unlawful. The process for this will differ from platform to platform in terms of how you go about it, and the time it will take before the review is removed.
It is often a good idea to seek legal advice before reaching out to the customer directly, particularly where a review goes beyond what is fair and warranted. Having had experience dealing with a variety of platforms we can advise on how to approach each one and your prospects of success. Taking further action independently can have serious consequences if it is the wrong action, or you use the wrong language.
When can a negative review be removed?
In Australia, you can generally have a review removed if it is defamatory, fake, misleading, or deceptive or otherwise unlawful.
In certain circumstances, where a defamatory or fake review causes damage to your business and reputation, you may have grounds not only to have the review removed but also to seek financial compensation from the source of the review. However, there can be significant consequences if you accuse someone and it is proven not to be the case.
Damages awarded can be substantial. As an example, an Adelaide woman wrote a Google review about a lawyer. She accused the lawyer of a lack of professionalism, saying that he brings ‘shame’ to all lawyers, gives false and misleading advice and is only concerned about getting money. Upon the first review being removed, the defendant posted further reviews under other aliases ‘poor service’ and ‘bad lawyer! Not at all reliable’. The thing was, she was never actually a client of this lawyer. The woman was ordered to pay the lawyer $750,000 in damages for making these highly defamatory statements.
Is the review defamatory?
For a review to be defamatory, it must be a statement made without any valid legal defence that damages your reputation. A review that expresses an honest opinion about the goods or services you have provided, even if you disagree with the opinion expressed, is unlikely to be defamatory. However, if the review contains statements that are untrue then it may be defamatory. For example, the review disparages a product that you don’t sell or a service you do not offer.
Some states have recently introduced a requirement to prove that the defamatory review has caused, or will be likely to cause, serious harm to you or your business. All states will eventually adopt this serious harm threshold. For this reason, a defamatory review, however upsetting, will only be actionable if it is likely to deter customers or is otherwise likely to seriously harm your reputation.
If you believe the content of the review is defamatory, you must act within twelve months of the review being posted. The court can extend this timeframe, but doesn’t do this lightly, so it is always preferable to seek legal advice early.
If a negative review is left by someone who is motivated by something other than a desire to give an honest opinion such as a disgruntled ex-employee, it may be deemed defamatory.
However, if you have a company that employs ten or more people, you cannot sue for defamation. This does not mean you have no avenue for rectifying the issue. The review may still be considered misleading or deceptive conduct under the Australian Consumer Law or you may have a case for injurious falsehood. That is, malicious intent.
How to remove bad online reviews
If you consider a review to be defamatory, you will often have the option of reporting the review to the relevant platform. Most platforms have review policies that prohibit certain types of content. For example, content that uses offensive, discriminatory language or promotes illegal activity is not allowed on the Google platform. You can flag a defamatory review on Google or a similar platform if it violates the platform’s review policy. For example, Google prohibits a previous employee of a business from reviewing the business based on their employment experience.
Flagging the review alerts Google that the review is fake or that it doesn’t comply with Google’s review policies. This process can however be unpredictable in terms of prospects of success and the time it takes to take the review down. In those circumstances, you may wish to instruct lawyers to send a Concerns Notice to the person that wrote the review.
A Concerns Notice identifies the defamatory statement, specifies where those statements can be found and describes the harm that has been, or will be caused, by the statements in question. It is a formal request to ask the other party to address your concerns, for example by removing the negative review, providing a written apology, publishing a retraction and paying your reasonable legal costs. You may also seek financial compensation for your losses or harm to your reputation. It is advisable to seek legal assistance with your Concerns Notice because legislation prescribes the necessary content and requirements for these letters.
As you are aware, a negative review can have a significant impact on your business. How you manage the issue, the language you use and the actions you take, must be well considered to achieve an optimal outcome.
Before you take any first steps, understanding what, and who you’re dealing with, is important. An initial no-obligation conversation with our experienced intellectual property specialists will give you clarity about what your next steps should be. We are Brigit Rubinstein and Zan Lee. Book a complimentary initial call with us here.