The power of Google, with more than four billion users of the search engine around the world, is now unquestionable.
A bad review of a business posted as a review on its Google listing can be highly damaging to the enterprise’s reputation.
There have now been a number of cases brought in Australia by those adversely impacted by a negative or defamatory Google review by a disgruntled client or vexatious reviewer.
The costs of legal action mean not every business has the funds to bring a defamation action. Additionally, the owner who brings such an action will need to demonstrate actual loss or harm as a result of the negative review.
This article takes a closer look at what options are available to a business the subject of a bad Google review. You should always seek the guidance of experienced lawyers with specialist knowledge in this area, such as Felicio Law Firm, before embarking on a defamation action over a negative Google review.
How does defamation work in relation to Google reviews?
A business that believes its reputation has been damaged by a negative Google will most commonly take legal action in defamation.
Defamation relies on the accusation that the review in question opened the business to hatred, contempt or ridicule.
It’s important to note not all companies can take action for defamation. Under NSW’s Defamation Act, an action for defamation is only possible by an ‘excluded corporation’. That is one that employs fewer than 10 persons and is not related to another corporation. The corporation must also not be a public body.
There are other causes of action a company can take, such as injurious falsehood, to combat the effects of a Google review, though they are generally more difficult to prove.
It’s open to a director or officer of a company to take personal action for defamation against a reviewer provided they are identified with sufficient certainty in the review that allegedly carried the defamatory imputation.
Significantly, a Google review can still be defamatory even if it does not specifically name a person or business. A reference in the review that is specific enough to allow identification – ‘the men’s hairdresser on Smith Street’, for example – can sustain the defamation action. Similarly, if there is a reference to a class of people such as ‘Everyone working at the fish and chips shop on Smith St’, may also support a claim for defamation.
Some recent case examples
In the recent case of Dean v Puleio  VCC 848, Ms Puleio wrote four Google reviews on the business listing of Dr Dean, a periodontist who owns Kew Periodontics and Dental Implants. Ms Puleio had been a client at the clinic until Dr Dean terminated the relationship due to Ms Puleio’s manner and constant cancelled appointments.
Ms Puleio then posted reviews that levelled accusations at Dr Dean including being unprofessional, overcharging, failing to diagnose illness, and being someone who bullied patients. Another post stated that Kew Periodontics provided ‘unprofessional and undermining service’.
Two further reviews stated other accusations about Dr Dean’s ethics and falsely stated the doctor had apologised to Ms Puleio.
Evidence supporting Dr Dean’s defamation application included the number of times the review had been viewed online, including the ‘grapevine effect’ when posts are shared, as well as data on the downturn in the page views on Kew Periodontics’ website and a drop in new patient referrals after the negative posts.
The court accepted the reviews had damaged Dr Dean’s reputation amongst her peers and in the eyes of the broader community, plus had an effect on her wellbeing.
It awarded damages in the amount of $170,000. That figure included aggravated damages because Ms Puleio had published the statements solely to harm Dr Dean’s reputation. She also refused to apologise, take down the reviews, attend mediation or participate in the court process.
Around the same time in February 2020, Melbourne dentist Matthew Kabbabe took Google to the Federal Court in order to force the search engine giant to identify a person who anonymously posted a bad review about his practice on his Google business page. Google had refused to either take down or reveal the identity of the poster, ‘CBsm 23’.
The Federal Court justice made an order compelling Google to turn over any identifying information of the reviewer, including names, phone numbers, IP addresses, location metadata, and any other information about the person’s Google accounts so that Mr Kabbabe could pursue a defamation action against the reviewer.
Can Google itself be liable? The Dylan Voller case
International social media platforms such as Google and Facebook have for many years strenuously resisted the idea that they are ‘publishers’ of reviews hosted on their platforms.
The High Court of Australia’s recent decision in the case of Dylan Voller, a former detainee of the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system, where it dismissed an appeal from Australian news outlets who claimed they were not responsible for third-party comments on their public Facebook pages, may also have implications for Google reviews.
Voller is seeking to pursue an action for defamation against the news organisations for allowing defamatory material about him to be published in comments on their Facebook pages.
The High Court rejected the appeal, finding instead that by creating a public Facebook page and posting content, the media outlets facilitated, encouraged and assisted the publication of comments from third-party Facebook users. These actions made them, therefore, the publishers of those comments.
Similar reasoning could be applied to Google’s facilitating of business reviews which are defamatory in nature.
In April 2020, Melbourne lawyer George Defteros had won $40,000 in damages from Google by arguing it had defamed him as the publisher of Google searches on his name which linked him to Melbourne gangland figures.
Call Felicio Law Firm for further advice
If you believe your business has been harmed by the appearance of a negative review on Google or another social media platform, call Central Coast Family Lawyers today.
In this fast-changing and evolving area of the law, we are always up-to-date on the latest developments to be able to advise clients on the most sensible and practical course of action to combat a negative review.