Commentary

Yelp Accuses Law Firm Of Posting Phony Reviews

In the last three years, the McMillan Law Group, headed by attorney Julian McMillan in San Diego, has received a number of glowing five-star reviews on Yelp.

“Exceeded expectations,” gushed one commenter.

“The competence of this firm went above and beyond any expectation that I ever had,” enthused another, who said the firm offered “a quick, efficient and pain-free bankruptcy experience.”

Yet another user praised McMillan as “an excellent and knowledgeable attorney” who “puts the smack down on creditor harassment right away.”

Those reviews might not seem likely to result in litigation. Yet that's exactly what happened.

But unlike the typical lawsuits involving review sites -- which tend to involve disgruntled business owners suing over unfavorable comments -- it was Yelp who brought this case. The company alleges that the positive comments about McMillan came from law firm employees and their relatives, as well as from other participants “in a circle of San Diego lawyers who trade positive reviews.”

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Among other allegations, Yelp says that four new Yelp accounts were created from an IP address connected to McMillan on the morning of Dec. 30, 2010. Those account holders went on to praise the firm in reviews.

Yelp says in its lawsuit that McMillan violated Yelp's terms of service by posting phony reviews, and also violated California's business code by engaging in “unfair and deceptive” acts. The case was filed last month in San Francisco County, but only came to light this week.

McMillan denies the allegations. He says that clients sometimes use the firm's computers to post reviews on Yelp, which could explain why some of the reviews came from IP addresses connected to the firm. He also says that every year the firm holds a holiday brunch for clients, and that clients on the premises for the event might have been responsible for some reviews.

McMillan adds that he never directed anyone to post a review to Yelp. He also says that everyone who expressed an opinion on Yelp previously received legal advice from him.

In addition, McMillan points out that he recently won a case against Yelp in small claims court; that matter stemmed from a dispute about an advertising buy.

“Their lawsuit, I assure you, has no merit,” he tells MediaPost.

More facts likely will emerge in time. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that this isn't Yelp's first lawsuit about fake reviews. Santa Clara University Eric Goldman tweeted in June that Yelp sued a Florida resident who allegedly operated a Web site that sells fake reviews.

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