Businesses and Consumers Fight Back Against Fake Online Reviews

October 29, 2015

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Online reviews posted by consumers on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, etc. have the unique ability to influence consumer behavior and purchase decisions. The latest research shows that:

With numbers like these, it makes total sense that smart brands and businesses are leveraging reviews to gain a competitive edge. They’re:

  • Listening closely to customer feedback on online review sites;
  • Responding actively to what customers are saying;
  • Analyzing review data to improve the customer experience;
  • And generating positive new reviews to engage audiences and build reputation.

Wrote the New York Times’ Matt Richtel: “(The) wealth of information and user reviews is causing a fundamental shift in how consumers make decisions.”

The shift that reviews are causing can be felt on the business side of things, too. It’s become part of the modern marketing mix. These days, it’s not uncommon to see “review management” as an operative phrase in everything from corporate strategies and brand books to customer experience management processes and SEO campaigns.

The latest TripAdvisor TripBarometer study identified reputation and review management as the 2nd most important investment priority for the surveyed local businesses. Furthermore, 83 percent of marketing experts and SEO professionals agree that review management efforts “absolutely” deliver good return on investmgent.

“(Review) and reputation management has a very positive impact on the fortunes of a local business,” wrote Search Engine Land’s Myles Anderson in an analysis. “The obvious benefits are improved ranking and higher conversion, but there are some less immediate benefits (such as impact on behavioral signals, which have a growing impact on local ranking)… and any edge that a business can get on its competitors is one worth driving after.”

In short: great reviews = positive impact on your bottom line.

The growing problem of fake reviews

It’s not always a fair game, though. Some companies have attempted to exploit the review revolution by manufacturing a 5-star reputation for themselves – in ways that can be described as unscrupulous. They’re:

  • Posting fake positive reviews of their business on sites where (they think) they could get away with it;
  • Posting fake negative reviews of the businesses that they compete with;
  • Hiring writers – from Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, among others – to generate these fake reviews under unique IP addresses;
  • “Incentivizing” reviews, or giving cash / other forms of rewards to customers who post positive reviews;
  • Or implementing measures to prevent / censor negative reviews, through penalties and non-disparagement clauses.

Read MORE: Florida Apartment Complex: Write a Bad Review, We Fine You $10,000

According to Gartner, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of all reviews were fake or paid for in 2014.

“For the service companies,” wrote NY Times tech reporter David Streitfeld, “buying reviews seems a shortcut to the better reputation they are unlikely to achieve on their own.”

Regulators and the legal departments of review sites have cracked down on brands and businesses that are faking it until they make it. But the problem of fraudulent reviews is still on the rise. Here are some notable examples:

  • A chef in the UK was exposed as the author of a number of online reviews that bashed competing restaurants on TripAdvisor.
  • Yelp sued a bankruptcy and foreclosure defense law firm for giving itself 5-star reviews on the site.
  • The FTC penalized an auto shipment broker for misrepresenting its reputation and giving $50 discounts to customers who post online reviews.

MORE businesses caught red-handed: “Shamed After Posting Fake Online Reviews

As you can see in the examples above, reasons for posting fake reviews vary. But it undermines the trust that consumers place on user-generated reviews, while also hurting brands and businesses that play by the rules.

Not-so-genuine reviews on TripAdvisor

For many businesses, Yelp is an easy target (and not least because of its massive popularity), but travel site TripAdvisor has also had its fair share of struggles in combating phony reviews.

Late last year, Italian regulators slapped a $610,000 fine on TripAdvisor for being unable to help users determine which reviews on its site were genuine and which ones weren’t.

Hoteliers and hospitality businesses listed on TripAdvisor also complained of being blackmailed on the site, with customers threatening to leave one-star ratings and negative comments if their demand for a free meal, a service upgrade, or some other special privilege was not met.

Said CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk: “Hotels and restaurants are often in fear of the one negative review that will be shared and reshared until it somehow becomes definitive.”

#noreceiptnoreview: Twitter campaign aims to combat fake reviews on TripAdvisor

This week, local businesses and consumers alike are teaming up to put an end to the problem of fake reviews on TripAdvisor.

Led by anonymous restaurant inspector @EaterWriter (“TomEats”) and restaurant critic Jay Rayner, a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #noreceiptnoreview was launched, calling for TripAdvisor to implement a new verification method by requiring users to provide a scanned receipt before being given the ability to post a review. That way, Rayner said, TripAdvisor can more effectively weed out the fakes and restore the trust that consumers place on online review sites.

The campaign on Twitter comes on the heels of Amazon’s announcement that it would sue more than 1,000 people who have offered to write fake reviews for businesses in exchange for a fee.

Said Rayner: “TripAdvisor have admitted they have a problem with fake reviews, and if you have a business model that functions on trust, then you need to do something to protect that.”

Restaurateurs, food writers, and consumers have all expressed support for the Twitter campaign, demanding a more thorough and reliable vetting process for reviews. After all, there is no substitute for real, authentic public feedback – regardless of whether it’s positive or negative – about the customer experience. Consumers rely on this feedback to make decisions, and businesses use it to make performance improvements.

So far, however, TripAdvisor hasn’t warmed up to the whole #noreceiptnoreview idea. Speaking to the Guardian, a company spokesperson said, “We believe that every experience counts, not just that of the person who paid the bill. If four friends go out to dinner there will be four different opinions, but only the one person with the receipt would be able to leave a review.”

Has your business been affected by fake reviews? If so, how did you deal with the problem? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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