Google turned over user’s info
that many of the customer service reviews you find posted about this merchant are legitimate. Caveat Emptor.”
Gary Kulp, owner and president of Austin Gutter King, says that’s just not true — and that everything on the site came from “legitimate former customers.”
“A lawsuit against a competing firm is a costly and negative experience, so it’s very much a last resort,” Kulp said. “But in the anythinggoes world of Internet reviews, businesses like ours have very few ways to manage and protect the reputation we’ve built over several years of hard work and fair dealings with customers.”
From the very beginning, Kulp felt the post was suspicious, he said. He learned more about Norma Lee after filing suit against Google in April. Information the search giant eventually turned over helped identify the poster as the husband of an Austin Gutterman employee, he said.
Aside from the nowgone review, other comments on Google Places, as well as those on similar sites, are almost universally positive.
“Very focused on customer satisfaction; we would recommend them to everyone,” one poster wrote. Another said, “They did an excellent job and were very professional.”
Google said it’s rare that a poster’s true identity is revealed, but it does happen on occasion.
“Protecting the privacy and security of our users is incredibly important to us,” Chris Gaither, Google’s senior manager for global communications and public affairs, said in a written statement provided to the American-Statesman. “Like all law-abiding companies, we respect valid legal process. Whenever we receive a request, we make sure it meets both the letter and spirit of the law before complying. When possible and legal to do so, we notify affected users about requests for user data that may affect them. And if we believe a request is overly broad, we will seek to narrow it.”
The court filing indicates that Google did let the man accused of posting the bogus review know about Austin Gutter King’s suit. That kicked off a string of emails in which the man reportedly made “varying excuses for why the review was posted” before he later “admitted he authored the review and that it was false,” Kulp’s suit says.
Kulp says the claims made by the poster amount to defamation and also run afoul of the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.
Austin Gutter King is seeking compensation for legal fees and economic damages, among other things. A specific dollar amount is not mentioned in the suit.
Web posters should think twice before making false statements, said Lee Berlik, a Reston, Va.-based lawyer who has handled several Internet defamation cases.
“It’s so easy for someone using a fake name to leave negative comments,” said Berlik, who is not involved in the Austin Gutter King lawsuit. “You can’t get sued for merely stating an opinion, but if you go beyond that and state something as fact and it’s false, then you can be sued for defamation.”
Online claims that make untrue accusations can seriously harm a company’s reputation, Berlik said.
“You see all kinds of fraudulent reviews out there,” he said. “My impression is this is a huge problem all over the country.”
One example: HotelMe .com, a recently launched site that features travelers’ critiques of hotels and motels around the world, claims “industry experts and researchers report that more than 40 percent of travel reviews are fake.”
Users posting reviews online typically rate businesses on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest possible score. Anything less than five stars can push down a company’s overall rating, potentially hurting the bottom line, Berlik said. Conversely, a slew of upbeat reviews could goose sales.
A 2011 Harvard University study found that restaurants that saw a onestar increase in their Yelp ratings typically reported revenue increases of 5 to 9 percent. The site most definitely “affects demand,” writes Michael Luca, the study’s author, and online reviews now “substitute for more traditional forms of reputation” in many cases.
Kulp said he hopes the suit “sends a signal to
Gary Kulp, owner of Austin Gutter King, is seeking compensation for legal fees and economic damages, among other things.