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Category Archives: Wine news

How to manipulate on-line reviews with a clear conscience — get a federal court ruling

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manipulate on-line reviews yelpAlways wondered how legitimate the scores and reviews were on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and the Wine Spectator? Now, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling, you don’t have to wonder: Legitimacy may not matter. The sites may be able to manipulate the ratings, and they don’t necessarily have to tell you what they’ve done.

Or, as Lou Bright, the blog’s unofficial attorney, says: “This does have the ethical aroma of dead rat, doesn’t it? Yet neither Yelp nor the Wine Spectator are legally bound to be morally upright. The First Amendment allows for an awful lot of disreputable speech.”

The court decision, made earlier this month in San Francisco, didn’t break new legal ground when it found that the possible “engineering” of review postings on Yelp, based on whether businesses bought an ad on the site, were legal. The ruling came after several businesses sued Yelp, claiming the site moved unfavorable reviews higher and moved favorable reviews lower on the site – or removed favorable reviews altogether – if the businesses didn’t buy ads.

Said the ruling: “It is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews. As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

A legal thing here, so I don’t get sued. Yelp’s senior director of litigation said the company didn’t make review decisions based on whether anyone bought ads, and there is a disclaimer on the Yelp site. And I’m not saying Yelp does that. Or that Angie’s List, the Spectator or anyone else does it. Or that it goes on at all anywhere.

Rather, as W. Blake Gray wrote when he broke the story last week, the ruling reaffirms that sites or magazines that do reviews can charge for upgraded placement, higher scores, or better reviews with a clear conscience. After all, it’s just hard bargaining.

I talked to three other attorneys for this post, and each said the same thing as Bright: It’s not a consumer-friendly practice,and there may be risk in the long run, but it’s not necessarily illegal. As long as the site or magazine doesn’t commit libel (which is often difficult to prove, says Dallas attorney Trey Crawford), and doesn’t run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission, it’s on safe legal ground. Some court decisions have even gone as far as to equate engineering with “editorial discretion.”

What can you do to make sure ratings and reviews aren’t engineered? Look for a disclaimer on the site, like the one I use, and will continue to use. No one pays me for favorable reviews or to review their product, and it will always be that way. Because, if there isn’t a disclaimer, anything is possible.

Win two tickets to Grapefest

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free grapefest ticketsAnd the winner is: The winning number is 713 (screenshot to the right). The winner is Nancy Hope, who picked 708. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Want to see the Wine Curmudgeon at Grapefest later this week? Want to attend the always popular People/s Choice wine tasting and judging? Don’t want to buy two tickets to the festival to do it?

Then pick a number between 1 and 1,000 and leave it in the comment section of this post, and only this post. Sending me an email doesn’t count; if you get the blog via email, you have to come to the site to enter.

At about 5 p.m. central today, I’ll go to random.org and generate the winning number. The person whose entry is closest to that number gets the tickets, plus a copy of the cheap wine book. You can pick the tickets up at will-call at Grapefest. These are general admission tickets to the festival, and not to specific events that require a separate admission (like People’s Choice).

Complete contest rules are here.

Winebits 350: Three-tier, wine prices, wine marketing

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three-tier systemNo love for three-tier: The Wine Curmudgeon has much respect for the Wine Folly website, which does great work educating wine drinkers. Its recent post on the dreaded three-tier system was no exception, detailing what it was and how it worked with quality graphics and clear writing. I don’t know that it gave enough credit to Prohibition in three-tier’s formation, but it did discuss its beginnings in the late 19th century, which I didn’t know. And it did impressive work tying the cost of wine to the inefficiencies of the system. My only complaint: That it forecast the coming demise of three-tier, based on direct shipping, the Internet, and flash sites. It’s not that I don’t want three-tier to go away, but it overlooks three things — three-tier’s constitutional protections, which the Wine Curmudgeon has lamented many times, the system’s immense clout through campaign cash, and that direct to consumer sales account for less than five percent of wine sales in the U.S. That’s hardly eroding the system.

“A giant sinkhole”: W. Blake Gray writes about the media’s immense joy in forecasting rising wine prices, which seems to happen every six months or so whether it’s true or not. The most recent example came after the Napa earthquake, even though the region produces just a tiny fraction of the world’s wine. Gray writes: “People just don’t have a sense of how enormous and international the wine business is — that if Napa Valley or Mendoza, Argentina or Barossa Valley, Australia fell into a giant sinkhole tomorrow, we would all be the poorer for it, but overall world wine prices would still not be much affected.” He also notes that many media types figure only rich people drink wine, and so deserve higher prices. I’m not so sure about the second; many of the media types who still get paychecks in this post-print world aren’t exactly paupers. My hunch is that it’s mostly crummy reporting. When a Washington Post writer proclaims that wine prices are skyrocketing when they’re not, and the Post is supposed to be one of the world’s best newspapers, it’s no surprise that everyone else misses the point, too.

It’s not about the marketing: Producers in the French wine region of Bordeaux are running around in a panic because sales are down, and this report discusses how it will try to solve the problem through better marketing – some €3m worth (about US$3.8). The Wine Curmudgeon, out of his great respect and admiration for Bordeaux wine, has a cheaper and simpler solution: Stop overcharging for your wine. It’s one thing to sell the best wines for hundreds and thousands of dollars a bottle, but when the everyday stuff costs $15 or $20 — and isn’t any better than $10 wine from California, Spain, or Italy — you’re not going to sell it, no matter how much you spend on marketing. One retailer, when I asked him why this was happening, attributed it to Bordelais greed. “If they can get it from the Chinese, they figure they can get it from the rest of us,” he said. Obviously, that isn’t the case any more.

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