Following more revelations about fraudulent customer reviews, how can your business benefit from online reviews without falling foul of the fakes?
A BBC investigation has revealed that fake online reviews are being openly traded on the internet.
BBC 5 live Investigates was not only able to buy false, five-star recommendations on leading review website Trustpilot, but also found online forums where Amazon shoppers offer refunds in exchange for positive reviews.
With the government's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimating that customer reviews potentially influence £23 billion of UK customer spending every year, the investigation raises more uncomfortable questions about the validity of customer reviews, with unscrupulous individuals and organisations keen to game the system.
- Last year a journalist fooled TripAdvisor’s ranking system into placing his garden shed as the top-ranked restaurant in London.
- In 2015, Amazon sued 1000 unnamed users for posting fake reviews via Fiverr, saying that its brand reputation “was being tarnished by ‘false, misleading and inauthentic’ reviews”.
- In 2015 a Twitter campaign was started with the hashtag #NoReceiptNoReview, after TripAdvisor was found to have fraudulent reviews.
- 2014 research from Gartner estimated that up to 15% of all online reviews were false.
- In 2010, hundreds of hotels and restaurant businesses threatened to take review site TripAdvisor to court over what they viewed as 'unfair' reviews.
- In 2009, a Belkin employee was found soliciting people to write positive reviews for one of its products on Amazon.
Review sites have been on the radar of the government for some time. In February 2016, enforcement action was undertaken by the CMA which forced five online review sites to agree to improve their practices. The crackdown was part of a wider consultation implemented in July 2015 regarding concerns about unlawful review practices including the publication of fake reviews, censorship of negative reviews and businesses concealing paid-for endorsements.
The CMA has made clear that it continues to investigate the practices of online reviews and emphasises that companies who fail to comply with regulations will be fined.
How can customer reviews help?
Reviews have become an increasingly valuable tool to drive purchases in recent years.
Research has revealed a strong correlation between the number of online reviews a product has and its sales performance - even if some of the reviews are negative.
The report Assessing the Impact of Ratings and Reviews on E-commerce Performance examined product performance on ecommerce sites, and found that when a product with no reviews adds even a single one, that product receives an average 108% traffic lift and a 65% increase in conversion rate.
The study also indicates that the best-selling products in a category – those in the top 10 – each tend to have more reviews than products among the top 100 in the category as a whole, many with double or triple the number of reviews.
Richard Anson, founder of Reevoo, notes: “It’s no secret – reviews persuade people to buy products and services. That’s why there are businesses risking fines and legal action to fake good ones. But in reality, this fakery is incredibly counterintuitive and in the long-term is more likely to lead to lower sales and brand damage.”
Customers value authenticity above all, and Anson suggests that trust is being broken down from three directions:
- By the (usually small) marketing agencies willing to write fake reviews for clients.
- By the businesses willing to do whatever it takes to look good online.
- And by the platforms who facilitate the process by letting anyone write a review.
What are the best practices for using customer reviews?
So with online reviews having become such a powerful part of today’s shopper journey, how can brands take advantage of influential online reviews without compromising customer trust, and ensure they are following the correct – and lawful – procedures?
Theresa O’Neil, formerly of PowerReviews, has shared the following advice:
- The authenticity of reviews is what makes them so powerful. Fake reviews mislead customers, it’s as simple as that.
- Make sure both negative and positive reviews are checked for fraud otherwise only false negative ones will be removed.
- Publish all genuine reviews – and ensure your review collection procedure allows this.
- Ask your reviews supplier how it weeds out fake reviews; you need to be confident in how they operate.
- Endorsements are not illegal and can help you sell your product – but the issues arise when you fail to disclose the relationship.
- If you’re paying for it, whether through sponsorship, advertising or any other commercial arrangement, declare it.
- Incentivising is a great way of collecting more reviews – but you should disclose the incentive and post all reviews, positive or negative reviews.
- Adhering to online review practices isn’t just a ‘nice to do’. If you fail on any of these counts, you may be in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
- Consumers trust reviews. And it’s the responsibility of brands and retailers to provide authentic content that consumers can trust. Aligning with the right reviews technology partner can help you not only drive traffic and sales, but also build and preserve trust with shoppers.
- Regulations forbid brands from censoring negative reviews – but they’re not something to be scared of. Research found that consumers specifically seek out negative reviews. Negative reviews show that brands have nothing to hide.
- Perfect ratings are perceived as too good to be true. Research also found most conversions aren’t driven by a 5 star rating; a product is most likely to be purchased if its average star rating falls between 4.2-4.5. Most people are savvy enough to discount overwhelmingly positive reviews as biased.
- Negative reviews can help brands identify better ways to serve their customers and improve their products. One of PowerReviews retailer clients had a watch on their site with a low rating. A closer look revealed many consumers commented that the clasp of the watch loosened quickly. The company worked with their manufacturer to improve the clasp, and the new version of the watch had a much higher rating.
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.