Time for brands to be honest about online reviews?

9th May 2016

In 2015, Volkswagen’s now-infamous emissions scandal proved that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In 2016 it’s Mitsubishi’s turn.

FIFA was embroiled in a very public airing of its dirty linen last year with Sepp Blatter’s resignation among a flurry of corruption allegations, while 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”.

Fast forward to this week - the House of Lords European Union committee warned consumers that online merchants, particularly travel agents, potentially 'wield enormous power' over consumers through misleading pricing and fake reviews.

Customers are losing faith in brands, and the threat of fakery, especially when it comes to user-generated content, is a significant problem – mainly because it’s such a betrayal of consumer trust.


The issue of trust is unlikely to go away in a hurry – online industries are an emerging market, which means that things often move faster than regulation can keep up with. Just last month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into Total SEO after it emerged that the company had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses between 2014 and 2015.

A bit of background on the CMA’s crusade - In June of last year, it launched the findings of a 'call for information' it put out the previous February. The CMA has now written an open letter to marketing departments, marketing agencies and their clients about the investigation and offering guidance on how to make sure they’re complying with industry standards.

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.

Action needed

When TripAdvisor was found to have fraudulent reviews last year, a Twitter campaign was started with the hashtag #NoReceiptNoReview, testament to the fact that consumers value authenticity above all else. That trust is an essential component in the relationship between brand and customer, and it’s 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

But while the CMA investigation is a positive move, it is just the first step in what will inevitably be a long and arduous process to crack down on fake reviews. To truly make a change that spans the entire industry, there needs to be action taken against everyone.

Ultimately, the way to avoid the whole disingenuous business would be for brands to understand how to deal with negative reviews in the first place – which would eliminate the need to misguidedly pay someone to generate false positives.

Of course, there are right and wrong ways to deal with negative reviews. But ignoring them is not an option. While it might seem tempting, this will only serve to make customers assume a brand doesn’t care about the problems they’ve had with a product or service, and possibly become even angrier than they were in the first place.

Automated responses are never a great idea either, because while innocuous enough on their own, they can often backfire. If a fiery complaint is met with a relentlessly chirpy “thanks for your feedback!” this is likely to make them feel more like a number than a valued customer. 

The CMA’s move marks a positive step forward in this increased scrutiny of reviews, and I can see brands beginning to wake up to the importance of verifying user-generated content.

Unfortunately, it seems that regulation of the world of online reviews is the only way forward in the short term.

Fake reviews are bad for business, and brands need to realise that genuine reviews, even negative ones, can improve consumer trust, increase the credibility of an online feedback system and strengthen the relationship between brand and individual.

Replies (2)

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By Henry Dean
09th May 2016 14:34

Are fake reviews always bad for business? We only talk about the ones that get revealed. I'm sure there's businesses out there profiting from the process.
Great article though - I agree that consumers are becoming less trustworthy as a result of the scandals you've mentioned but I don't know if I agree that that's necesarily a bad thing.

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Replying to Henry Dean:
By RichardAnson
11th May 2016 11:19

Thanks for your comment Henry – glad you enjoyed the article. I have to stress that fake reviews are unanimously bad for business, and even for those companies that believe they won’t get caught it’s really not worth the risk. To add to that, bad reviews and other negative feedback actually bring with them a host of benefits – from greater transparency and customer satisfaction to improved product development if you consciously act on that feedback. We've found that people spend more than five times as long on a website with bad reviews, trust the reviews they see far more and convert nearly 85% more often.

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