A recent investigation as part of a BBC 5 Live programme has led to the underground trade in fake online reviews coming under the spotlight.
What Reviews and Why Does It Matter?
The kinds of reviews of products and services that can allegedly be purchased and displayed online in order to influence purchasing decisions are reported to be those on sites such as Trustpilot and Amazon.
Three quarters of UK adults use online review websites, and the government's Competition and Markets Authority estimates that such reviews potentially influence £23 billion of UK customer spending every year.
Younger consumers are thought to be particularly influenced by the reviews of others / their peers when it comes to purchasing decisions.
The key motivator for businesses buying fake reviews is, of course, to rank top for your product because this can lead to a lot of extra sales.
How Bad Is The Problem?
A Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Study shows that almost half of UK adults believe they have seen fake reviews, and according to US analysts, as many as half of the reviews for some products posted on international websites like Amazon may be potentially unreliable
What’s Been Happening?
According to the recent BBC investigation of the problem, buyers are offered full refunds on products bought on Amazon in exchange for positive reviews. This practice is believed to be something that was driven underground back in 2016 after Amazon introduced measures designed to prohibit ‘incentivised reviews’ i.e. businesses offering customers free goods in exchange for positive reviews.
The BBC 5 Live team investigators have reported that they were offered deals for Amazon reviews, and were able to use eBay to purchase a false 5-star review on Trustpilot.
In response to the findings of the BBC investigation, Amazon has stated that it does not permit reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind and that customers and Marketplace sellers who don’t follow review guidelines are subject to action including potential termination of their account.
Trustpilot has said that it uses specialist software to screens reviews against 100's of data points around the clock in order to automatically identify and remove fakes, and that it has a zero-tolerance policy towards any misuse.
E-bay has also stated that the sale of fake reviews is banned from its platform, and that any listings will be removed.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The potential rewards of more sales an profits, getting a competitive edge, and boosting brand awareness are powerful motivators for some businesses who may feel that when weighed up against the lack of any serious penalties, buying fake reviews may appear to be worth the risk. For the vast majority of review-reading customers, however, this is a deceptive practice that may cause them to purchase products that do not meet their needs or expectations.
The proliferation of fake reviews also undermines public trust in reviews, and this can be particularly unfair for those companies who have worked hard to get genuine positive reviews through simply providing superior products and service levels.
There is an argument that more preventative action needs to be taken by these platforms to stop fake reviews being published in the first place, and that stronger penalties are needed for those caught selling fake reviews.
Sadly, many commentators believe that we are currently in a 'post-truth era' where many people get their news from social media and where we are becoming conditioned to put less emphasis on the need for objective facts. It is with this backdrop that the trade in fake reviews has been allowed to grow.
There is still a strong argument, however, that there is no substitute for striving to provide quality products and great customer service as these strengthen a business anyway, ensure that reviews are positive, and should ultimately win over short-term deceptive practices.