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Liar liar: How can you protect your brand from fraudulent reviews?

27th Jun 2014
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Your customers are relying more and more on online reviews to determine whether you’re worthy of their hard-earned cash. As well as just checking out your website and the reviews you publish on there, they’re now likely dig a little deeper to track down people's opinions of you from other sources. Bazaarvoice recently surveyed 3,000 consumers from the UK and US, and found that 70% of UK respondents read reviews before handing over so much as a penny.

Not only are reviews important for brand reputation and customer acquisition, but they also provide invaluable feedback for product development, allowing your business to improve its services and products and keep ahead of its competitors. So, like it or not, your organisation may well be relying on customer reviews more than you think.

What would happen then, if your brand’s reviews were compromised? How many areas of your business could potentially be affected: sales, conversions, ROI, marketing, product development, brand influence…?

The reason this is so pertinent, is that a recent study carried out by researchers at M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management and Northwestern University found one in 20 reviews of a prominent US retailer’s product were “submitted by customers with no record of ever purchasing the product they are reviewing". The report went on to note that "these reviews are significantly more negative than other reviews.” In other words, it looks pretty likely that a fifth of this brand's reviews were posted by people who’d never even purchased the item that they were discussing so negatively.

This is concerning news. But one person who isn't surprised by this is Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, VP of marketing EMEA at Bazaarvoice, who rattles off a number of examples of brands that have experienced such fraudulent reviews - and have fought back. 

One particular retailer, she explains, went through a spell of receiving very poor reviews on their own-brand television – but it couldn’t work out why. They used advanced content tagging to reveal that, in actual fact, people were very happy with the set itself, but words like ‘sticker’ and ‘residual’ were appearing over and over again. Looking into this further, the company realised that the sticker which came on the new sets was difficult to peel off and was leaving a sticky residue behind. They fixed the sticker issue and it was problem solved - thanks to the reviews. 

Another organisation offers customers the chance to post reviews on their website, then displays the three latest entries – completely unedited and regardless of the score they carry. This is a great way to gain consumer trust and promote transparency. The brand also uses the reviews for customer insight – any that carry less less than four-and-a-half out of five stars gets flagged and fed back, and is then used to improve its business processes.

Both are great examples of just how valuable genuine reviews can be to a business’ products and services. However, Prelini points out some ways in which the benefit goes even deeper.

“Research that we undertook with the Generational Kinetics Institute found that 84% of consumers are actually influenced by user-generated content,” she says. “People trust other people – 90% of people trust each other while only 10% are trusting brand advertising. So as a result of this, people are turning to each other and are looking to personal reviews and online reviews to influence their purchase decisions.”

With such a profound influence on your customers, reviews need to be taken seriously by your brand. Especially if it’s within in the travel sector, as Prelini explains: “I would say travel is at the greatest risk - although that’s not to fault TripAdvisor at all. Businesses have seen the value that is added with [positive] reviews, so as a result we’re seeing business cheat the system. In the case of TripAdvisor, the fraudulence that’s taking place puts [the travel industry] at the highest risk.” If you’re in the financial field though, you’re better protected “because there are so many industry regulations in place around fraud.” 

So, how widespread is this problem really? Well to answer that you have to consider a few variables. “It basically depends on how mature the market is,” Prelini says. “So if we look at the markets like the US, reviews started very early with the likes of Amazon. It was really the consumers dictating the marketplace - it was before businesses started to roll out reviews. But if we look at other markets, like France for example, where reviews were not very common, businesses caught onto reviews before consumers did. And as a result, we saw a lot of businesses putting out a lot of fake reviews. And so that’s why we’ve seen industry standards like AFNOR in those markets.”

Sniffing them out

Luckily, there are ways that brands can identify fake reviews. “There are tell-tale signs,” points out Prelini. “There’s a couple of things. The first is that the reviews have [elements of] story telling – it’s a story that takes off with someone trying to get people to relate to them. It’s the vocabulary that they may use and the way that they start their sentences. But it’s also detailed information. So that’s one instance.

“Then you’ve got the other instance where it’s specific product information that they give. So generally, if someone’s unhappy with their TV they’d usually say ‘I really don’t like my TV, I’m unhappy with it’. When they start going into detail and about why exactly they’re unhappy about the TV and the specifics within that, then I’d start to question how genuine that review is.”

Besides content, you need to be looking at things like repetition, Prelini says. “What you’re looking for in these fraudulent reviews is not the volume that they’re posting on one individual site, but across the network. So if you have an individual who posts across five or six areas, if you’re a brand like Phillips and you’re working with a number of retailers, you’re able to identify this fraudulent reviewing that’s taking place across a number of sites.”

One you’ve identified a potentially fraudulent review, you need to go about implementing some serious damage control. “The first thing [brands] need to do is respond to the review itself,” notes Prelini. “They should respond to the review questioning, if someone’s complaining about the product, what exactly the problem is, or try to understand if it is indeed a product issue. Find out where it is and get as much information as possible. Raising it online but then taking it offline is a good idea, to offer an area where they can have a discussion with an individual to find out what the issue and concern is.

“If the process of responding to a review raises concerns or evidence that the review is fraudulent, the second thing they need to do is track down the source of the review and look at the profile of the person. Obviously there will be disclosure of information around that profile. They can try reaching out to that individual and, if it’s on an external site, they can look to contact the administrator of that external site to get the review removed once they can actually prove that it is a fraudulent review. But what they also need to do is research where else this individual is posting these fraudulent reviews.”

Defence tactics

With less-than-legit reviews having created such a far-reaching problem, it’s no wonder that seven out of ten consumers have questioned the legitimacy of online reviews that they’ve read. This poses a problem for brands, as their genuine positive reviews are pulled into disrepute. Because of this, it’s important that organisations make their reviewing system and website as transparent and trustworthy as possible, in a bid to convince confused consumers that there are no dodgy entries on their site. One tactic is to validate your site's authenticity through an industry standard that will then label it as trustworthy.

“We’ve launched Bazaarvoice trust mark and this trust mark appears on brands’ and retailers’ sites that have met a very stringent process on Bazaarvoice’s bar,” says Prelini. “They need to show that any content is free from fraud. The practices we use are the highest in the industry standards today – it’s the same detection system used for the financial services industry. We need to ensure that any content that is posted is transparent.”

That means no editing your reviews. “No changes can be made; no cherry picking. It’s not a case of being able to put up the five-out-of-five reviews and forget to put up the ones that are one and two; it’s about putting all the reviews up on your site, not just picking the one you want to put out there.”

Most importantly though, for brands who want to encourage trust, is to remain transparent. “I always love this statement that privacy can be bought, trust must be earned but security is a must,” adds Prelini. “So what brands need to do is be public. They need to put their processes forward as an organisation and as a company in simple terms that people can identify and understand. If they’re able to do that, consumers are able to understand that reviews will only be posted if they meet a certain criteria.”

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