Can You Trust Online Reviews – Managing the Risk

I wonder what other users said about this store.

I wonder what other users said about this store.

Users trust ratings and reviews.  Users are listening to each other.  They are not listening to what you have to say about your own product.  I am sure you, as an individual consumer, are doing it every time you buy a book or other item on  Studies have shown that users trust those words more than yours.  However, there is an underbelly to ratings and reviews.  Spam, fake reviews and blatant astroturfing.  These all bring into question this mechanism, but also opens up opportunities for vendors, but also for you as a brand.

NOTE: I have some time commitments on me today so am updating an earlier post on this subject and re-posting it, with an additional section on employees.

When the issue of trusting reviews came up over at Wired, they prepared a very useful flowchart.  Directed at Yelp reviews, the reality is that most online review sites can be treated the same way.   While I tend to trust reviews a bit more than they do, it the flowchart does give you a good quick laugh.

Astroturf – It’s Not Just for Football Anymore

If you think that astroturf refers to the fake grass on your neighbors patio, think again.  And really, fake grass on a patio?  Astroturfing is a play on the grassroots term.  When you pay for the appearance of grassroots support, you are laying artificial grass.  Hence, astroturf.  While the problem will only get worse, be advised that astroturfing is a clear violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) guidance in this area.

It Will Only Get Worse

Today most of us view this problem as mere nuisance.  We look for reviews that are not as polished, sound authentic and are not over the top in their praise.  At least that is my barometer.  The problem is only going to get worse.  Gartner predicts that by 2014 as much as 15% of online reviews will be fake and paid for by companies in one form or another.

Do you find it troubling that despite clear guidance from US regulators that companies still think this is acceptable?

Fixing the Problem, or How Should You Do It?

Folks in the financial services industry provide one way to weed fakes out.  Most do not allow un-authenticated users to post anything.  While does the same thing, financial services get the benefit of their paranoia and the oversight of government.  Their users aren’t fake users because those logins are tied to a financial account.  They track your behavior on their website to ensure you aren’t doing something you shouldn’t be doing with your money.  So, it is very hard for a fake reviewer to get into the system.

If you can find some way to prove the identity of the poster, this is a great way to weed out fakes.  I do not envy the folks at in trying to address the problem as discussed in a December, 2012 New York Times article.  If you are submitting a review for your mom’s book, you are materially connected to the product and you need to disclose your relationship.  This is just basic FTC endorsement and disclosure guidelines, folks.  I find it troubling that the writer of the article doesn’t acknowledge that.  Even author J.A. Konrah thinks that fake reviews on books is ok because there is no harm.  He is from England so I will give him a pass on knowing what the FTC has said, but the FTC has clearly stated this is unacceptable.

After the review is posted, or perhaps just after it is submitted, doing a review of the review is another way to ferret out the fakes.  Researchers at the World Wide Web 2012 conference presented a software algorithm that is tuned to spot the fakes.  The software is aimed at spammers more than the paid for reviews.  A human written, paid-for-review will not be caught by the software as it was written by a human, and not a spam bot.

Employees as Consumers

Are your employees also users of your products and services?  Do you allow them to comment in online reviews?  This is a very thorny subject and a bit of a double edged sword.  On the one hand, they can be your greatest ambassadors.  On the other hand, other users may reject them out of hand as shills for your brand.  And on yet a third hand, they can get you in trouble faster than a meerkats avoiding the acid lakes in Life of Pi.

If you decide that you want employees to participate because they are consumers too, you have two things you need to do.  First, do a big introduction communication to them telling them about it.  Why?  Because you can set your expectations about what is proper conduct in the space.  This leads into the second.  If you don’t have a programmatic way of identifying employees as employees, stop and get one.  Do not rely on telling employees they need to disclose that they are employees.  There are systems out there that do badging of users on forums.  Leverage that.  It is so easy, you will not receive a free pass from regulators if you don’t do it.

Back to the first, in your communication, let your employees know what to do if the discussion strays into a customer service issue.  This is partly to shield them from going out of their comfort zone, but also to alleviate their concern that they have to.  The other reason is to avoid the impression (by other users) that the forums can be alternative issue resolution channels, unless they are.

The End of the Day

At the end of the day, ratings and reviews are something you want as a brand.  While there are huge problems with the systems out there, this is one of those instances where you need to mitigate the risk as much as possible.  Do what you can before the post is made, and what you can after the post is made.  Have staff monitor, either systemically or by hand, the flow of postings periodically.

One other thing.  Train your people on the FTC’s guidance in this space.  Stress that while it may be easier to pay for reviews, you want to be authentic out there and fake reviews about your stuff will not help.  Especially when you get caught.

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