The case: Former bodybuilding world champion Renate Holland couldn’t believe her eyes when she discovered that one of her gyms listed on the rating portal
had only been rated with 3 stars. This ranking was based on only one single user contribution. In contrast, yelp had dropped 24 user contributions with predominantly positive ratings.
Yelp’s own software was responsible for this. The software automatically checks every single rating received by yelp in order to extract the particularly reliable ratings.
[quality, reliability, user activity, referral software]
Above all, the software is looking for users who really want to share their ‘rich and detailed experience’ of ‘doing local business every day’. Hence more than 90% of the consistently positive (but not in-depth) reviews of the gym simply fell by the wayside. Only the one critical contribution remained, which determined the gym’s low score. Naturally, this poor rating had a detrimental effect on business. Did Mrs Holland have to put up with this?
The Federal Court of Justice ruled in favour of yelp. The operation of a rating portal fulfils a function approved by the legal system and desired by society. That operation also includes the monitoring and evaluation of user contributions, which is a way of reducing the risk of misuse of the rating portal by reviewers. yelp had communicated this on its portal.
The fact that yelp described the selected contributions as ‘recommended’, but all others as ‘not recommended’, was the result of its own assessment. This comes down to a subjective value judgement rather than a factual claim. In a democracy, everyone should be free to say what they think, even without providing verifiable reasons for their opinion. yelp does not carry out product tests, nor does it evaluate restaurants. For such evaluations, neutrality, objectivity and comprehensibility would have to be assured. But in this case, the fact that the opinion expressed was a negative reflection of the studio had to be accepted. A trader must, in principle, accept criticism of their services. This also applies a discussion of them in a public forum. yelp had not defamed or belittled the fitness studio, Federal Court of Justice, 14 January 2020, VI ZR 496/18.
Learnings: Freedom of expression is a priority for rating portals as long as the portal does not pretend to act neutrally, objectively and comprehensibly. Be aware of this issue.