Online review management and review-based marketing have increased at an unprecedented speed. But so has the proclivity of less-than-ethical businesses to find shortcuts that boost their reputation or, alternatively, sink that of their competitors.
The latter has been around for a while, and was first detected as a common practice among hoteliers. The number of leads or lead validations originating from review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Expedia brands were so strong that many gave in to the pressure and engaged in the highly unethical practice of astroturfing their review profiles and/or sabotaging the profiles of their competitors.
Better reviews, more quality leads
The idea is simple: the worse a competitor looks, the more your business is likely to stand out.
The simplicity of the concept behind it, and the knowledge that many of these reviews will go undetected if the business is less than savvy in the areas of reputation and review management, makes it a very tempting proposition. (RELATED: Giving Yourself 5 Stars? The Cons of Faking Your Online Reviews)
Just like in Google rankings, businesses that rise to the top of popular third-party review sites such as Yelp receive the bulk of the leads for their category. For some industries such as restaurants, leads originating from Yelp and other customer review sites can be as high as 40 percent of their total incremental traffic.
The frustrated ex-employee
Another common practice that can profoundly affect your brand reputation happens when a disgruntled employee or ex-employee who happens to have insider knowledge of your business decides to post highly negative reviews on influential review sites.
This situation is far more dangerous than reviews originating from your competitors, if you take into account the level of insider knowledge an employee or former employee is likely to have.
In contrast to a competitor, the narrative of their reviews is likely to be accurate and detail-rich, posing a higher risk to your business and a very small probability of getting blocked by moderation filters.
How do you know if a negative review is false and malicious?
Inconsistent with your trends: If you are a highly proactive business that truly values two-way customer engagement, then chances are you have a glowing online and offline brand reputation. Your competitors and former employees would not be after you if you were already struggling in this area.
If you start receiving reviews that are anomalous in tone and rating, followed by excellent reviews reflective of your overall trends, then chances are someone is hard at work trying to ruin your review profiles. Catching this problem early by using review management and monitoring tools can give your business the edge as far as crisis management is concerned. The earlier you notice, the easier it will be to corroborate the facts and disprove them.
Industry-lingo-heavy: Every industry has a distinct language, with terminology that is mostly used in-house. Bitter competitors and ex-employees who have something against you have a natural inclination to use industry terms when writing false reviews.
For example, a competitor’s or ex-employee’s false review in the hospitality segment might opt to use the term “high occupancy” instead of “really booked.” You know better than anyone else the trigger words for your industry. Keep a close eye out when evaluating negative reviews, and be sensitive to this type of clue when you suspect foul play.
Weak, borderline anonymous profiles: The validity and strength of an online review is directly associated with the profile of the user who posted the review. If the user has no transparency and no track record of other online interactions, then this should raise an alarm.
If you identify a suspect review, then take a moment to evaluate the user’s profile. There are two possible scenarios: the reviewer in question does not have a transparent, information-rich profile, nor does he or she show much prior activity; or the reviewer has posted a highly negative review on your profile and the profiles of similar businesses, with the exception of one business profile where he or she has posted a glowing review.
In situations like this, the competitor with the glowing profile becomes a suspect of astroturfing and leaving false reviews.
The review can’t be validated against your customer management tool: If you have tools that can single out transactions and secure business intelligence, then you may be able to validate or invalidate a review by looking back at transactional activity. For example, a reviewer with malicious intent may mention the date of his or her transaction and include the type of purchase or service received. In looking at your records, if you don’t have evidence of the transaction described, you now have a case to escalate to the review site’s host.
Reviewer not open to dialogue when offered remedy: If you are proactive in managing your reviews and are consistent about providing review responses, then you may find that those leaving false reviews are not open to dialogue when you offer a potential remedy.
Reach out by publishing a review response, and if you fail to hear back from the customer, document it accordingly. Your response will help you when trying to get the review removed after flagging, and it will tell other potential customers more about your commitment to doing things right and going the extra mile for your customers to ensure 100% customer satisfaction.
Narrative doesn’t correspond to your offering: The thing about malicious people is that they are usually lazy and unwilling to do their homework. A tell-tale sign we commonly see in malicious reviews has to do with narrative accuracy. The reviewer will mention products, services, or facilities that don’t align with your business reality.
Similar verbiage on competitors’ profiles: If you are in a highly competitive market, and someone is out to take position number one by using less-than-honest means, follow the breadcrumb trail by looking at all of the reviews associated with their profile.
There is a good chance they will post equally negative and highly similar reviews on the profiles of other businesses in the same comparative set. If you are planning to flag and escalate, take screenshots of their activity.
Reviews happen after someone leaves organization in bad standing: If you had an almost flawless review history and a five-star cumulative score, and all of a sudden things begin to go south, then take a look at your recent HR decisions.
A disgruntled employee may choose to create multiple profiles and try his or her best to tarnish your brand reputation. To make the connection, you may have to have internal discussions regarding the terms of separation and the likelihood of the ex-employee to engage in malicious efforts against your company.
What can your business do?
Make certain you are, in fact, under attack. Pride can blind the best of us. Oftentimes, a bad review is quickly credited to a malicious attack, without taking the time to look at the reality of business.
Before you flag a review for removal, take a moment to do internal inquiries, and make certain you and your team are not dropping the ball. If you are, and you are fortunate enough to discover it early, then you will have enough advanced notice to try your best to rectify the situation and get your brand reputation back on track.
Flag the reviews in question
Almost every single review site offers businesses and users the option to flag a review for removal. Once you are pretty confident the review or reviews in question are part of a malicious attack, flag them as soon as possible, and include details that back up your claim, such as screenshots and other internal information that may help the moderator decide in your favor and proceed with the removal of the review or reviews you have flagged.
When you suspect that you are under attack, make certain you have checked the most popular review sites, just in case the attacker has decided to diversify his or her approach.
Respond to the reviews and commit to right a wrong
Potential customers using popular review sites to assess the capabilities of your business rely on more than just your positive reviews.
A well-handled escalation speaks to potential customers about your commitment to customer retention and loyalty. Even if you suspect a negative review is false, respond to it as if it were true, without taking an accusatory approach, which shows your commitment to fix the issue at hand.
Provide the review host with internal documentation
If you move forward with flagging the suspect reviews for removal, take the necessary time to build your case by providing as much backup documentation as you can reasonably secure. Take screenshots of other suspect online engagements by the same user, and provide the moderation team with any internal documents that validate your escalation.
Create an avalanche of real reviews
Your commitment to building your brand reputation is the best insurance when it comes to malicious attacks. Continually work toward earning the loyalty of your customers and having more and better reviews each day.
Taking this approach will ensure that your negative review or reviews will quickly fade into the background, and truthful, positive reviews will become the centerpiece of your review profiles.