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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Owning a new restaurant in Downtown Richmond was a dream come true for Shane Thomas. She opened “Sweet Teas,” in Shockoe Bottom just six months ago. She said she doesn’t just credit her food for her success, but also word of mouth advertising.

“They’re very positive. They love the restaurant. There’s change in the Bottom. They’re happy to have me. They talk about my service, they talk about the sweet teas that I do,” Thomas said.

While she appreciates what customers have said about her, she is also concerned about what some have typed on various online review websites.

“I worry about Yelp more than anything because it tends to be so big now. It’s like a big thing in the restaurant industry,” Thomas said.

Websites like Yelp allow anyone to post reviews, both positive and negative, online — turning anyone with a computer or smartphone into a critic.

More than 117 million people visited Yelp within the last few months of 2013.

Thirteen Yelp reviews of Thomas’ restaurant have left her a  3½ star rating.

“Are we certain they are real people? Are we certain they are giving their real review?” Thomas asked.

Not just restaurants

Lorenzo TSRJoe Hadeed, CEO of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, took Yelp to court. He demanded the company turn over the identities of several people who anonymously posted bad reviews of his business.

“You try to separate business and personal feelings, but, it does hurt because it’s not true,” Hadeed said.

Hadeed said it was not the negative comments that bothered him as much as the fact that the comments were about services his business does not even provide. Hadeed says he wants to protect the reputation of his company, started by his father in 1955.

“It’s about defamation. It’s simply about defamation,” Hadeed said.

A lower court agreed with Hadeed and so did the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

Their rulings would force Yelp to unmask alleged customers’ personal information and hand it over to a business owner.

Yelp said it planned to appeal the courts’ rulings.

But Yelp is not the only one concerned with the courts’ decision.

Others worry the ruling will serve as a slippery slope ultimately leading to businesses invading the privacy of users of social media, whether they’re a real customer or not.

The court’s ruling states, anonymous speech is protected under the first amendment, but “defamatory speech is not entitled to constitutional protection or the same protection as truthful or political speech.”

The court based its decision on a state law passed by lawmakers more than a decade ago which makes it easier for anyone to take legal action against an anonymous online person if they’re posting tortious or illegal material. To subpoena the mystery person’s information, you must prove to the court why knowing their identity is relevant for a lawsuit.

“We believe the first amendment requires businesses to show the court at least some evidence,” says Rebecca Glenberg with the American Civil Liberties Union.

She is not pleased with the ruling and her organization sides with Yelp. Allowing businesses to obtain your personal information on mere speculation alone is reason to be concerned, Glenberg says.

“If it’s too easy to uncover the identities of anonymous online commenters, people will stop commenting online and we’ll lose a very valuable source of information about the quality of various goods and services,” says Glenberg.

A spokesperson for Yelp wrote in an email;  “They’ve gone to great lengths to protect the integrity of the site and they do have a process in place to identify and remove illegitimate comments.

Also, in a post on their website, Yelp’s Senior Director of Litigation writes, in part, “Courts elsewhere have respected the first amendment protection for citizens to speak anonymously. Yelp will continue the fight for free speech in Virginia.”

While that debate continues, managers with the Richmond marketing and advertising firm, Madison and Main are urging you to use caution when trying to find out what products or services are really like,  citing a new survey that shows more than one in five people have actually written reviews for products they’ve never purchased or used.

“Take everything with a grain of salt because you don’t know who it writing is sometimes. You don’t know what their credibility is,” says Dorsey McFadden.

McFadden offered a few tips to get the best use from such sites.

  • Look for reviews with multiple comments.
  • Only consider reviews with identifiable critics.
  • Reviews with a lot of ratings and comments are generally accurate.
  • Don’t consider reviews for services like medical treatment .

Back over at Sweet Teas, Thomas says she welcomes criticism to help her new restaurant continue growing and better serve her customers, but says she does not want to lose business because of what she doesn’t know, and can’t control.

“Why am I so engrossed in it as a restaurant? What happened to the good ‘ole fashioned way of doing business?” she asked.  “Is social media going to be the beginning of the end of good business?”

Yelp plans to appeal the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

Do you believe what you read in online reviews? What red flags do you look for? Click here to email us your thoughts and we may share them in an upcoming newscast.

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