Now There’s an Official Way to Threaten Businesses with Bad Online Reviews

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Anyone and everyone can write reviews of hotels and restaurants at sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. So why would anyone pay $100 for a card that simply states “I Write Reviews” — something that, to repeat, anyone and everyone can do?

Well, there is one big reason a person would do so: If the card grants the holder better treatment or perhaps even discounts and freebies that surpass $100 in value, then the card is worth it.

That’s the premise behind ReviewerCard, “a first-of-its-kind membership card and community for reviewers” that is supposed to give members “premium treatment” when the card is flashed at hotels, restaurants, and other places of business that are subject to user reviews—a category that covers almost every local business out there. Not just anyone can be a member. The site stipulates:

Membership is reserved exclusively for highly active review site users who must submit their personal links for screening. If you are a casual reviewer and only post once in a while, this card is not appropriate for you.

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But if you do qualify, and if you do cough up the $100 lifetime membership fee, you can supposedly expect great perks—not just good service, but perhaps even half-price hotel rooms and restaurant appetizers on the house. Supposedly. While nothing is guaranteed, the idea is that businesses will bend over backward and hook you up under the quid pro quo premise that you write a glowing five-star review afterward.

The Los Angeles Times’ David Lazarus recently took the Manhattan Beach-based company ReviewerCard to task, describing the concept as little more than an ” upfront threat of a scathing online takedown”:

This is, of course, wrong on many levels and is an example of how the culture of amateurism that was once one of the Internet’s more endearing qualities has become a free-for-all unburdened by any thought of ethics or moral integrity.

Lazarus focuses mainly on how the card is unfair to the businesses being threatened, and also to the customers who don’t have cards and therefore are getting less-than-stellar treatment. Such a system also obviously undermines the trustworthiness of online reviews—an issue that has been called into question many, many times over the years thanks to periodic scandals highlighting fake or skewed reviews. The brilliance of an online review from any old customer is that, in theory, it represents the typical experience any other customer can expect. But the typical customer should never expect the kind of “premium” treatment promised by the ReviewerCard.

(MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews)

Interestingly, some of the people who are bashing ReviewerCard hardest are the folks who, in theory, could be taking best advantage of the card: Yelp users. In Yelp’s Detroit forum, for instance, the product is referred to as the “douche card,” as well as “a complete crock of pretentiousness” that carries about “as much clout as a Burger King Kid’s Club membership.” Other Yelpers have suggested that “anyone who uses a ‘reviewer card’ deserves a ‘surprise’ in their drink.”

Naturally, ReviewerCard creator David Newman tells Lazarus that there’s nothing wrong with the concept. “I see it as letting the restaurant know that they should treat me good because I’m going to be writing a review,” he says. “It’s a way to get the service you deserve.” (As mentioned, that highly deserved service may or may not include a “surprise” in your drink.) No one is getting hurt, Newman claims, even as he sees no need to disclose in his reviews that, thanks to the card, he got special treatment—treatment that non-cardholders cannot expect.

Yelp responded to my inquiry with a statement implying that the ReviewerCard concept is not simply bad, but possibly in violation of its terms of service, as well as rules established by the FTC. “Asking businesses for special treatment or free services in exchange for a review of your experience violates our Terms of Service and can violate Federal Trade Commission guidelines,” Yelp’s statement reads. “Being compensated to write or remove a review” is one of the no-nos in Yelp’s content guidelines, and the “premium treatment” promised by ReviewerCard could qualify as compensation, though that might be hard to prove.

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To clarify, for a cardholder to cross the line and violate Yelp’s terms of service and FTC rules, he would have to explicitly threaten the business or demand free services or special treatment; simply flashing the card probably isn’t enough, though the same threats may be implied. But it’s not too difficult to see how flashing your big-time status as a ReviewerCard user could result, ironically, in the termination of your status as a Yelp user.