Can a lone blogger bring down a business?
- 31 July 2014
- From the section Technology
It would be a nightmare for any small business: one unhappy customer takes offence and their blog keeps popping up every time a potential purchaser searches for the store's name.
In the past, newspaper editors acted as a check on printed criticism. Now it's down to opaque search engine rank calculations.
In the online age, do bloggers wield too much power? Or does the internet's promise of freedom of speech trump businesses' need for a way to prevent their profits being hit?
One Northern Irish shoe shop certainly feels that the former is the case.
The ordeal for the shop - Robinson's Shoes - started when Jesper Ingevaldsson wrote up his account of what he called the "worst online shopping experience" he had ever had two years ago.
In his post on a forum, Mr Ingevaldsson complained that the shoes he had bought had started to break apart. He said the store was slow to deal with his complaint and even tried to charge him the cost of returning them.
Both parties agree that the issue was eventually resolved, but the negative review, entitled Warning for Robinson's Shoes, remains second in Google's results for searches of the shop's name.
"It is detrimental to our business, about 85% of which is done online," claims Martin McKeown, the shop's digital marketing executive.
He admits that he has little proof of actual lost sales.
But, he adds, the store's data indicates that "people have clicked on our site, opened a new tab, read something else, then closed our site down", which he says suggests the review is putting potential customers off.
One online search expert acknowledges this is not an uncommon issue.
"There is the debate about whether someone might be able to punch above their weight and the argument is that one bad review shouldn't have to define your business," says Danny Sullivan, founder of the news site Search Engine Land.
The same, he points out, is true of social media, where a single customer with a large following can harm a business's reputation.
"But people expect there to be negative things about businesses online. They would almost be more suspicious if there was not," he adds.
The Northern Irish case bears similarities to that of the French blogger who was ordered to pay damages to a restaurant after she wrote a scathing review about it.
The problem in that case, the judge in Bordeaux found, was not that Caroline Doudet's blogpost was defamatory.
It was that its title - The Place to Avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino - appeared too prominently in Google's search results.
That effectively acted as a warning to potential customers without providing an explanation to those who did not click through to the full post, it was decided. Ms Doudet was ordered to pay damages and to amend the title.
But there is one major difference between the two cases: British judges do not have the power to order bloggers to amend their writing simply because their criticism is too effective.
In Germany and France, "you can get an injunction, which can be overturned later - we are very different", says Niri Shan, head of media law at Taylor Wessing.
So, what alternatives are there in the UK?
A defamation action is one option to tackle recent blogs - legal action must be pursued within one year of the post's publication in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and three years in Scotland.
Judges can order a guilty blogger's webpage to be deleted.
But a change to the law last year has made such a ruling harder to obtain in England and Wales.
To win, companies in those nations must now prove they suffered "serious" financial harm.
In addition, bloggers can resort to a new defence of "honest opinion", which allows them to use supporting facts they learned only after writing their article - something that wasn't possible before.
"We have a scenario in which it is questionable whether you would be found liable for giving an unfavourable review," comments Paul Tweed, a media lawyer.
Another option is to resort to the recently established "right to be forgotten" - the ability to force Google and other search engines to remove a link from their results in Europe.
But this can only be obtained if the blog names a specific individual who complains - not a company - and then only under certain conditions.
In fact, it might be more effective to bypass the courts and appeal instead to the blogger's good nature.
But even this tactic can throw up complications.
No easy solution
In the case of Robinson's Shoes, the store did eventually convince Mr Ingevaldsson of its case.
"I felt bad for them and didn't think that they needed to suffer for that bad treatment of one customer," he explains.
"But you can't remove old threads yourself on that forum, and I've tried to contact the forum crew a couple of times to have them remove it without any luck."
The store's Martin McKeown suggests such situations could be avoided if search engines were obliged to demote such links after six months.
But the problem with that, says Search Engine Land's Mr Sullivan, is that Google does not necessarily differentiate between each type of result.
What would happen, he asks, if the search engine failed to distinguish between a single negative review and a major journalistic expose?
Neither Google nor Microsoft's Bing were willing to discuss the technical or ethical implications of the matter with the BBC.
What can be in little doubt is that the immediate and global availability of a single scathing review, perhaps written in haste, can seriously harm a business in the age of search engines.
"The question is - do you apply a remedy that could potentially do harm?" asks Mr Sullivan.