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How to write reviews without getting sued

In a well publicized incident that happened earlier this month, someone who wrote a bad review on Amazon about a cheap router got threatened with a lawsuit by the router’s distributor, Mediabridge. Amazon retaliated by banning the distributor from selling on Amazon. But unfortunately, this means we have to think about how to write reviews without getting sued.

By the time this happened, the review was no longer on Amazon, so all I’ve heard about the review is secondhand. Ars Technica published this guide to writing reviews without getting sued and I think it’s good advice, but of course, having written dozens, if not hundreds of reviews myself, I feel inclined to elaborate. I actually value online reviews by people who bought the product and tried to use it. I value them a lot, so I want people to write reviews, and not be afraid to do it. And since I went to school for this stuff, hopefully I can say something helpful.First, let’s talk about libel. Truth is the absolute defense against libel. That’s what every journalism professor and instructor uttered at least once in every single class I took. So make sure anything you say is verifiable. In this case, the reviewer said this Mediabridge router was the same as a $20 router sold by Tenda. He did the right thing–Ars Technica went to the FCC, compared the numbers, and found they are indeed the same device. In the most recent review I wrote, I stated that I run DD-WRT on a TP-Link router. It’s easy to verify that DD-WRT does indeed run on that particular router.

The other thing I do is relate my experience. I state what the product did well, what it didn’t do well, and if what I wanted it to do wasn’t something it was designed for, I’m up front about that. In the case of the last motherboard I bought, I stated that it runs Linux really well, but doesn’t run Windows nearly as well. Gigabyte may not be happy with me for making that statement, but it’s hard for them to argue I’m being malicious. I said their board runs Linux really well. Lack of malice is the other defense against libel, so if you can find a way to say something good about the product, it’s hard for them to claim malice. Example: My son has a toy train that he loves. I hate it because the battery holder can’t hold a battery, so every time he turns the train over, the battery falls out. Taking it apart to put the battery back in takes five minutes every time. I hate that piece of junk. But my son loves it. See? I said something positive: My son loves that train. They figured out something kids like, so they did something right. They just need to quit using four-cent battery holders in their $20 toys.

Sometimes there isn’t anything good to say. Several years ago my wife had a terrible experience with a doctor. The office help was rude and the doctor wasn’t there when she arrived for her appointment. I called and asked what they were going to do to make it right, and they were just as rude to me. So I wrote a review stating all of that. There’s only one other Google review of that doctor and his office, and it’s just about as bad.

But I’ve written Google reviews of lots of other local businesses, most of them overwhelmingly positive. It’s hard to argue malice when the only other review is also negative, and when 90% of the reviews I write are positive.

I think the element of his review that left him open to the threat of legal action was his accusation of astroturfing–paying people to write good reviews. I know there are companies who do that. I have no way of knowing if that was happening here. It’s also kind of irrelevant because the worst reviews get lots of unhelpful ratings on Amazon, so the best positive and negative reviews tend to rise to the top anyway. I rarely, if ever, mention other reviews in my review. I just state my own observations and experience with the product and try to tell people what I wish I’d known when I bought the product myself. Doing that, my reviews tend to rate pretty well, and they rise above any astroturfed reviews that might be there. Some people are smart enough to spot astroturfing when they see it and some aren’t. I can’t save the people who aren’t, so I don’t worry about them anymore.

Companies whose business model is to sell cheap, poorly made products to uninformed consumers come along all the time. Some are pretty successful for a while, but that practice always catches up with them at some point. They either improve their quality or go out of business. Packard Bell is a notorious example.

But if astroturfing really bothers you, on Amazon, if you see reviews that appear to be astroturfing, you can always click the “Was this review helpful?” link and say no.

I guess they key there is not to make accusations. If the company’s tech support isn’t helpful, then there’s no problem stating that, but don’t let your personal feelings about the company get the best of you when writing. A good review is about the product, and if you’ve talked to tech support, what they did or didn’t do to make the product right. If the product is overpriced and doesn’t work well and is hard to set up and the tech support isn’t able to help you make it work any better, you’ve built a strong argument against the product. The astroturfing accusation is hard to prove, and sounds malicious on the face of it. And since it doesn’t really add any value, why not just leave it out?

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