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Attempted censorship is the fastest path to bad publicity – a lesson Union Street Guest House wishes they learned earlier.

That business’ longstanding policy to charge wedding parties for negative online reviews backfired this week – epically – when the Internet collectively decided they didn’t like the Hudson, New York hotel’s attitude.

Nearly 1,000 one-star reviews on Yelp later, the company put out a statement saying the policy was meant to be a joke. If that’s true it hardly matters – the Internet’s made up its mind, leaving this business with a blight in its search results.

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Censorship as a company policy

Our story begins with a tiny hotel in upstate New York. And when I say tiny hotel, I mean the sort of place with nine rooms, all with names like “The Library” or “The Thunderbird Suite”. I mean the sort of place with old-fashioned furniture, and no free breakfast. I mean the sort of place with a website that looks like this:

union-street-website

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That’s a fancy looking computer. Anyway, this ain’t some homogenized Hilton hotel: it’s a meant to be an experience. An experience the owners thought some people just won’t understand.

“Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our Inn, your friends and families may not,” said the company’s website, before getting into their now-infamous negative review policy.

“If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any Internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event”.

For years this policy was on the hotel’s website, and hardly anyone noticed. This week that changed: the rule went viral, prompting coverage almost everywhere.

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Anyone who understands The Internet knows what’s likely to happen next. People from across the Web, outraged by what they saw as attempted censorship, decided to punish this company by leaving bad reviews. Within 12 hours Yelp had around 1,000 one star reviews for the hotel – many from people who admitted they never actually stayed there.

Attempting to control the damage, the hotel’s owners posted a response on their Facebook page, basically saying the policy itself was a joke.

“The policy…was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago,” said the statement. “It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced.”

This hasn’t slowed the flow of negative reviews – many refuse to believe it was a joke, and at least one Yelp review pre-dating the controversy suggests the hotel did in fact charge a wedding party along these lines.

Yelp, for their part, are taking down posts left by non-customers – contrary to a popular myth, Yelp doesn’t demand payment to clean out fake reviews Investigating The Yelp Rating Algorithm: How Internet Memes Spread Investigating The Yelp Rating Algorithm: How Internet Memes Spread Many small businesses on Yelp believe the review service manipulates its rating algorithm. But is it true? We detail that investigation with first person accounts and interviews with Yelp managers. Read More .

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It’s a mess for the hotel, really, and we’ll likely never know what exactly they were thinking. What we do know is that this was preventable, so here’s what any business can learn from this recent social media meltdown.

1. Don’t Try To Control Reviews. Ever.

The Internet’s essence is free expression. Telling an Internet user they can’t speak freely is the biggest mistake you can make online – and it will backfire.

Sites like Yelp have an amazing amount of power over local businesses. The days of the Yellow Pages are long since gone, meaning most customers will Google your business – where customer reviews are extremely visible.

This means an irate customer has the power to do severe damage to a small business – especially if you don’t have many reviews. Considering this, owners might feel the need to take matters into their own hands, pursuing negative reviews with legal threats Leaving An Online Review? Word It Right To Avoid Legal Action Leaving An Online Review? Word It Right To Avoid Legal Action Companies are chasing down negative commenters and reviewers with threats of legal action. How serious is this problem, and what can you do to receive an unexpected letter from a lawyer? Read More or fees.

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Don’t. Doing this will, at best, upset your customer even more – which won’t be good for your reputation. At worst, your business will become a social media sensation for all the wrong reasons.

You can’t win with threats. Don’t even try.

Having said that, if a review is obviously fake The Scourge Of The Web: Fake Reviews & How To Spot Them The Scourge Of The Web: Fake Reviews & How To Spot Them "User reviews" are actually a pretty recent phenomenon. Before the prevalence of the Internet, user reviews were called testimonials, and you’d only see them on TV commercials and product pages. Nowadays, anyone can write anything... Read More , you can usually report it to the site in question and they’ll take it down. But if a review is from an actual customer, threats won’t get you anywhere.

2. Respond To Reviews, But With Humility

I’ve worked in service. I’ve read Not Always Right. I know that sometimes customers are entitled jackasses – and that the desire to defend yourself after they write a nonsense review will be strong.

But seriously, even if people are being completely unreasonable, it does a business no good whatsoever to point this out. Getting into a public shouting match on a site like Yelp or TripAdvisor won’t help you.

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The above response is a good example of this: the word “attitude” in quotes struck many Internet users as obnoxious, which in turn drove more of them to join the angry mob on Yelp.

You want your company to appear friendly, and to be striving to improve. Be careful with your wording, and avoid anything that might sound passive aggressive. It’s fine to explain why something went wrong, but never attack the reviewer. Be the better person – anyone reading will respect you for it.

3. Ask Happy Customers For Reviews

You’re going to get negative reviews sometimes – that’s just how it is. In fact, some people are less likely to trust a business because it has no negative reviews: it seems suspicious.

Part of this is human nature. People are more likely to post a review online if they had a bad experience, because they need to vent about the bad experience.

online-reviews-happy

You can counter this tendency, though: if you think a customer really enjoyed your service, mention that you could really use some positive reviews. Sincerely grateful customers might not ever think to leave a review, but if you ask them it will at least increase the odds. Give it a shot.

Constantly Become Better

Many Reddit users compared Union Street Guest House to Amy’s Baking Company, a restaurant that made a disastrous TV appearance even worse by going on a social media tirade –

I don’t think Union Guest House is anywhere close to that level of arrogance, personally. I get the feeling they’ve learned from the experience, and the result will likely be better customer service.

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts, and feel free to point out any other notable meltdowns – and what you think small businesses can learn from them.

  1. Tom
    August 11, 2014 at 2:34 am

    I used to live in Hudson... it's a little nothing of a town. The biggest news there was when the Walmart came to town in the late 90s. No joke.

    • Justin P
      August 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      Well you've got news because THE INTERNET ATTACKED.

  2. Bryan Bays
    August 10, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I think if people have this much time on their hands, and something like this gets them angry, and with the problems we are having in our world right now, then perhaps their priorities are a bit out of whack, thank you.

    • dragonmouth
      August 11, 2014 at 11:47 am

      I think if people have time on their hands to complain about other people's misguide priorities, with the problems we are having in our world right now, then perhaps their priorities are a bit out of whack, thank you.

      I'm sure you never complain about a bad stay in a hotel or a bad meal in a restaurant or a rude clerk in a store. You reserve your indignation for the more serious problems of the world.

  3. Anomaly
    August 10, 2014 at 12:12 am

    This was no joke. It's very common now for these fines and lawsuits if you give a bad online review. There are a lot of places adding clauses in contracts that take away your right to give a bad review and you agree to it when you sign so read the fine print.

  4. Brad H
    August 9, 2014 at 7:25 am

    1. I think the hotel learned their lesson.
    2. I think the hotel really did forget they had this policy online.
    3. I am glad that Yelp is taking down the reviews of non-patrons.
    4. I think people in this day and age can be quite powerful in voicing their opinions and should be careful in how they do it. Not sure if people are justified in vilifying a business that they have never been to. I say let the actual customers determine a business' reputation. In this example, if the hotel truly enforced this policy many times, then that in and of itself would have eventually gotten out. It was only because someone discovered this policy and decided to be judge and jury and made it viral. I don't agree with that tactic.

    • dragonmouth
      August 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      In re #4:
      Internet gives everybody who is connected to it a voice. Sometimes it is the voice of reason and sometimes it is the voice of lunacy. Sometimes we agree with the voice and sometimes we do not. That is the cost of having the Internet.

      Internet is being used every day as a tool to club into submission companies, businesses, groups with policies that we do not like. A boycott of Proctor & Gamble was organized because of their logo with supposedly satanic design and meaning. Koch Industries are being boycotted because of the owners' political views. etc. etc. etc. And the beat goes on.

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