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Regulator clamps down on fake customer reviews

24th Feb 2016

The integrity of some customer reviews has once again been placed under the spotlight, with the news that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has taken several customer review sites to task for hosting fake reviews. 

The CMA has criticised two tradespeople sourcing websites (Checkatrade and Trustatrader), and three care home review sites (Carehome.co.uk, Care Opinion and Most Recommended Care) for not providing a "complete picture when making buying decisions”.

In the case of Carehome.co.uk and Care Opinion, the regulator said they had been pulled up because they had given care homes the option to restrict the publication of reviews. While Checkatrade, Trustatrader and Most Recommended Care have been rapped over the knuckles for not ensuring reviews received are checked properly for genuine or fraudulent content.

Collectively, the firms have agreed to cease restricting reviews, ensure that user generated content is genuine, and that both good and bad reviews are published. The latter commitment remedies a remarkable deception, considering the detrimental and life-changing consequences of withholding poor reviews, particularly in the care and trades sectors.

The news comes several months after ecommerce giant Amazon took the aggressive step of suing more than 1,000 of its customers for posting fake reviews on its site, with concerns growing about the damage being inflicted by false reviews. 

Who are the CMA fighting for?

The general public are captivated by and invested in user generated content, with nearly 95% of shoppers consulting reviews during their browsing and buying journey. As such, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the CMA have cast a steely eye over brands orchestrating manipulative review practices and launched an investigation in 2015 to make sure those using reviews online were doing so in a way that was in the best interests of consumers. In its initial report and call for information, the CMA discovered that 42% of consumers leave reviews, while 80% of consumers believed that online reviews are genuine.

When those 80% are vulnerable consumers, such as the elderly, or their concerned and risk-aware families, the deception is all the more outrageous.

Building a reputation based on authenticity

Building a reputation as a small business takes time and resource, but to attracting new customers and building a business. If consumers discover that a brand has misled them or withheld critical information it can cause irreparable damage to a brand's perceived trustworthiness and subsequently its bottom line.

Businesses concealing negative reviews, posting fake reviews and failing to disclose paid for endorsements isn’t just frowned upon – it’s illegal. ​

Endorsements and reviews are a great way of helping to build reputation, but businesses shouldn’t seek quick wins by taking shortcuts. The CMA has identified several areas of concern when it comes to online reviews – from businesses concealing negative reviews, posting fake reviews and failing to disclose paid for endorsements. But this isn’t just frowned upon – it’s illegal.

In its investigation, the CMA discovered that millions of reviews fabricating positive product and service appraisals were populating review sites. It also found that third-parties were also courting undeclared sponsored or advertorial content – in exchange for payment – and disingenuously encouraging their audience to invest.

The CMA uncovered brands actively writing their own reviews, publishing fabricated content to third-party review sites and constructing negative reviews to damage the reputation of competitors. The CMA have taken a hard line with businesses big and small, and consumers and brands are starting to feel the wrath of the new laws. Giants such as Sports Direct have been probed for blocking negative reviews, while Amazon has sued independent sellers flooding its marketplace with fake content.

Brands that care for their reputation, but that have invested little attention or funds to cultivate user generated content should take note of the new regulations to enhance their image and presence in the marketplace.

Brands should make peace with the regulations (and reap the spoils)

Higher priced items and items with questionable safety – such as care and tradespeople – have a higher risk associated with purchase and this prompts heavier involvement from consumers as they consider purchase. But it’s not fair just to point the finger at these industries as it’s likely there will be many more firms and industries who are found in breach of consumer law this year. For small businesses, now is the time to ensure your review policies and processes are working in favour of the consumer not against them.

Contrary to popular belief, balanced reviews that acknowledge the good and bad of a product or service can actually help firms make more money, not to mention they are essential for the consumer decision-making process.

Now is the time to ensure your review policies and processes are working in favour of the consumer not against them.

According to a study by PowerReviews and Northwestern University, if a brand makes use of star ratings, consumers do not trust a product that has five stars because they think it to be “too good to be true”. Instead, products with average rating star ratings of 4.2 to 4.5-stars are more trusted by consumers and prompt conversion and sales, a good reason alone to showcase all reviews no matter if they are good or bad (as long as they are genuine).

Moreover, brands refusing to publish poor feedback are making life much more difficult for themselves. In the same study, PowerReviews discovered that 82% of shoppers seek out negative reviews, and yet, consumers still choose to buy. Sometimes the reason for the negative review is irrelevant, or the reviewer is perceived as unreasonable, but in any case a balanced perception helps brands to establish trust and authenticity and firms would be well placed to remember this.

What should businesses do to make sure they are on right side of the law?

  1. Embrace negative reviews: Regulations forbid brands from censoring negative reviews and the good news is that they’re not something to be scared of. Remember that 82% of shoppers seek out negative reviews to get a balanced picture. Most people are savvy enough to discount overwhelmingly positive reviews as biased and research suggests that purchases drop off after an average 4.5-stars anyway.
  2. Stomp and weed out fake reviews: The authenticity of reviews is what makes them so powerful. Fake reviews mislead customers, it’s as simple as that. Both negative and positive reviews should be checked for fraud, otherwise only false negative ones will ever be removed or blocked. Publish all genuine reviews and ensure that your review collection procedure allows this.
  3. Get authentic paid-for reviews, but make sure they’re flagged: Endorsements are not illegal and can help you sell your product – but the issues arise when you fail to disclose the relationship. Keep your interests and company protected by supplying a disclaimer at the beginning of any endorsement negotiation. If the third party does not disclose the endorsement, ensure to follow-up and make the relationship as transparent as possible.
  4. Accept responsibility and learn the law: 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. 

Anne Marie Checcone Olsen oversees EMEA operations at PowerReviews. This article was originally published on MyCustomer sister site BusinessZone.co.uk

Replies (2)

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Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
04th Mar 2016 14:29

Gov.uk has announced that a "CMA investigation into Total SEO & Marketing Ltd (Total SEO), a search engine optimisation (SEO) and online marketing company, found that between 2014 and 2015 it had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses that were published across 26 different websites which contain customer reviews".

The company have confirmed they will cease the practice, but interestingly in addition, the CMA has "written to Total SEO’s clients to warn them that third parties writing fake reviews on their behalf might lead to them breaking the law themselves".

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