One-Star Reviews: What Can I Do & When Can I Sue

Daniel A. Powell
Cleveland, Ohio
Internet Law
(216) 373-7706

About
Daniel is a seasoned litigator with a stellar track record of victories as both a trial attorney and an innovative online problem solver.
In this digital age, purchasing decisions are increasingly driven by online reviews and ratings. Each year, more and more people are turning to the Internet as the very first step in deciding what to buy and who to hire, inevitably finding – or even specifically in search of – feedback from other customers.

In this digital age, purchasing decisions are increasingly driven by online reviews and ratings. Each year, more and more people are turning to the Internet as the very first step in deciding what to buy and who to hire, inevitably finding – or even specifically in search of – feedback from other customers.

Many popular consumer review websites, such as Google and Yelp, allow their users to publish reviews to both comment on their experience and assign a rating to the business.

The one-star (worst) to five-star (best) rating scale is most commonly used. The separate ratings from each individual review are then aggregated into an average star-rating which purports to represent an honest and fair assessment of the business and the products or services it sells.

That average star-rating becomes a more powerful and influential statement than any individual review can offer. Anything less than a stellar rating will unavoidably result in lost profits.

Unfortunately, despite their critical importance, average star-ratings are far too easily manipulated and frequently weaponized. On most websites, the verification process is weak at best or, all too often, completely non-existent. The reviews can be and usually are published anonymously or under a pseudonym without any way for the business to verify that the author is an actual customer.

Currently, there is a troubling lack of safeguards preventing a competitor or ex-employee from publishing a negative review while masquerading as a disgruntled customer, falsely recounting some horrific marketplace interaction which never occurred. Moreover, there are no effective measures preventing such people from registering 10 separate accounts and publishing 10 separate reviews, deceptively pretending to be 10 separate dissatisfied customers.

While most websites have terms of service in place which prohibit defamatory (false) statements, none of them actively enforce those rules. Simply put, the websites do not want to play referee on what is true and what is false. Instead, you will likely be directed to obtain a court order against the author if you want the website to remove what you believe to be a defamatory review.

For any review which includes false commentary, there is at least a general framework guiding the legal implications which arise from that review. In those situations, courts have typically applied traditional defamation law principles.

This article addresses the more novel questions surrounding the reviews which give a poor rating, usually a “one-star”, but include no additional commentary.

On its face, a one-star review with no commentary would suggest nothing more than an expression of opinion. Similar to truthful factual statements, opinions are almost always accorded full protection under the First Amendment (free speech).

To be clear, in nearly all situations, a single one-star review published by an actual customer cannot be defamatory, no matter how unfair it is for the customer to hold that opinion of the business. But what if the author was never a customer and has no legitimate basis to offer an opinion? What if the author has ulterior motives and/or has misrepresented his/her capacity? What if an actual customer pretends to be multiple customers, all holding the same negative opinion of the business?

With any anonymous online reviews, there are too many unanswered questions to cast any legal analysis in absolutes. One-star reviews are certainly no exception.

Below, we will delve deeper into the one-star review dilemma and discuss best practices for dealing with them and protecting your business.

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