What are you really agreeing to when you click that fateful “agree” button? Terms & Conditions cuts out the legal lingo to spell it out in plain English.
Online review powerhouse Yelp landed in the news recently after a user was sued for criticizing a business on the website. Christopher Dietz, owner of Dietz Development, claimed that a negative review by former customer Jane Perez cost his business $300,000. That may seem like a lot, but a study by Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Michael Luca found that “each ratings star added on a Yelp review translated to anywhere from a 5 percent to 9 percent effect on revenues.”
Given Yelp’s potential power over businesses, it’s time we took a look at the website’s Terms of Service.
To start, Yelp maintains a fairly long and unwieldy ToS. It’s not packed with as much double-speak as, say Facebook’s Data Use Policy. But it’s dense enough that I doubt many Yelp users have ever read the document, for fear of dying before getting to the end of it. So for the sake of brevity, I will focus on just three areas: content ownership, Yelp rules, and membership auto-delete.
Yelp explicitly states that you both “own” your content – anything you post to the site, from reviews to photos – and that you along are responsible for what you post.
However, the company also stipulates that anything you post to Yelp may be used by Yelp for any reason whatsoever, including putting your photos, business profile, or reviews in advertisements. Not only that, but Yelp reserves the right to use your content even after you delete your account – forever.
“We may use Your Content in a number of different ways, including publicly displaying it, reformatting it, incorporating it into advertisements and other works, creating derivative works from it, promoting it, distributing it, and allowing others to do the same in connection with their own websites and media platforms (“Other Media”).” reads Yelp’s ToS. “As such, you hereby irrevocably grant us world-wide, perpetual, non-exclusive, royalty-free, assignable, sublicensable, transferable rights to use Your Content for any purpose.”
It continues: “In the event of any termination of these Terms, whether by you or us, Sections 1, 5, 6, 10 – 14 will continue in full force and effect, including our right to use Your Content as detailed in Section 5.”
Ridiculous? Yes. But of course, Yelp isn’t Instagram; because, if it were, people would be freaking the hell out right now.
Did you know that you may not use Yelp if you’re under the age of 18? It’s true. That is just one of more than 20 rules listed in Yelp’s Terms of Service. The number and nature of the rules is comparable to most websites, which forbid users to do things like harass each other, impersonate other people, etc. Yelp has gone the extra step, however, of issuing a separate set of Content Guidelines, which all users must follow.
They are as follows:
- Inappropriate content: Colorful language and imagery is fine, but there’s no need for threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, and other displays of bigotry.
- Conflicts of interest: Your contributions should be unbiased and objective. For example, you shouldn’t write reviews of your own business or employer, your friends’ or relatives’ business, or businesses in your networking group.
- Promotional content: Unless you’re using your Business Owners Account to add content to your business’s profile page, we generally frown upon promotional content. Let’s keep the site useful for consumers and not overrun with commercial noise from every user.
- Relevance: Please make sure your contributions are relevant and appropriate to the forum. For example, reviews aren’t the place for rants about a business’s employment practices, political ideologies, extraordinary circumstances, or other matters that don’t address the core of the consumer experience.
- Privacy: Don’t publicize other people’s private information. Please don’t post close-up photos of other people without their permission, and please don’t post other people’s full names unless you’re referring to service providers who are commonly identified by their full names.
- Intellectual property: Don’t swipe content from other sites or users. You’re a smart cookie, so write your own reviews and take your own photos, please!
Again, all of this is straightforward, normal, and fair. Just keep in mind that, because of the effects of negative Yelp reviews on businesses, leaving a review that violates these guidelines could, if you’re really unlucky, result in federal prosecution. (But most likely, your review will just be deleted by Yelp.)
One of my missions in life is to bring to light a provision that appears in many Terms of Service that I believe is completely unfair: I call it “auto-delete,” and it could end your Yelp membership at anytime.
From the Terms: “We may close your account, suspend your ability to use certain portions of the Site, and/or ban you altogether from the Site for any or no reason, and without notice or liability of any kind. Any such action could prevent you from accessing your account, the Site, Your Content, Site Content, or any other related information.”
As mentioned, Yelp also says that, if such a termination of your account occurs, Yelp can continue to use your account content however it wishes.
All said, I actually like Yelp a lot; it provides consumers with a valuable service. But it should really re-think the content ownership and account auto-delete provisions in its Terms. They aren’t helping anybody but Yelp itself.