Fake reviews: the good, the bad and the ugly

Recently there’s been a lot of talk in the news about fake reviews and “astroturfing” whereby businesses are either unfairly tarnished by fake negative reviews, or given an unfair advantage from fake positive reviews. As one of these sources points out;
It’s estimated that 71 per cent of Australians base their purchasing decisions on user-generated reviews (Nielsen Research) and reviews have eclipsed traditional “top-down” sources of authority such as professional reviews and mainstream advertising.
(Slightly odd that a major media outlet publicly announces that advertising is no longer effective when their business model is built on advertising, but that’s just an aside.)
Fake Review Will Be Found
Here at Word Of Mouth Online, we estimate that in the last 12 months, 1 in 4 Australians have used reviews on WOMO to find and choose businesses. With over 370,000 customer reviews, WOMO is Australia’s No 1 website for business reviews and we take our responsibility to both consumers and businesses very seriously.
 
The integrity of the reviews on WOMO is our greatest asset and we have lots of measures in place to minimise any unscrupulous behaviour. If you’ve wondered how this works, here’s a quick snapshot… although obviously we can’t disclose the details of some of our measures.
 

Protecting Businesses from Fake Negative Reviews

Even though we find that only around 8% of online reviews are negative, unfortunately there are instances where competitors or disgruntled employees decide to leave fake negative reviews. On WOMO we encourage businesses to play an active role in their reviews – in particular;
  • We encourage all businesses to Claim their Listings so that we can notify them when reviews are submitted. This is free for all businesses and is done simply by clicking on the “Is this your business?” link on the business listing page.
  • If the business believes a review to be fake (ie not from a paying customer) they can click “Flag as Inappropriate or Suspect” with notes about their reasoning. This prompts our team to open up an investigation on that review which would require the reviewer to allow us to pass on their real name and/or may require the reviewer to provide evidence of their proof of purchase (for example, a receipt, invoice, quote or sometimes an email trail).
  • If the business believes a review to be from a real customer, but containing false statements, this can also be dealt with. All reviews must adhere to our Fair Play Policy and will be removed if they fail to meet this criteria.
  • Businesses also have the “Right of Reply” on WOMO and are encouraged to respond to their reviews – whether negative or positive.  This allows them to tell their side of the story and impact the way their reputation is perceived by others. We provide tips on How to Respond to Negative Reviews and How to Respond to Positive Reviews.
  • The WOMO algorithms also take into account the details of the member submitting the review and we are the only review site to use the concept of a member TrustFactor. In real life, people put more trust in recommendations from people they know well, that have given them reliable recommendations in the past. WOMO  emulates this online and gives individuals a TrustFactor which incorporates how much we know about the individual and how much history they have with the site.
  • The TrustFactor is used to weight the influence of each review – so reviews from members with a low TrustFactor don’t count towards the Overall Rating anywhere near as much as reviews from members with a high TrustFactor.
  • Reviews from members with a very low TrustFactor are not published until the member’s TrustFactor increases. This means that someone writing a review for the first time will not have that published unless they invest significant time and effort in building up their TrustFactor.
  • We also have content verification checks in place – any inappropriate terms/phrases, names mentioned in a negative review, inflammatory language will trigger a check by our team and often the review will be suspended until it’s amended by the reviewer (or will be permanently retracted if this doesn’t occur).
  • Reviewers on WOMO are required to have a unique email address and any flagged reviews (by businesses or other users) are subject to IP address scrutiny and other measures which might link them to other accounts. In addition, anyone participating in our rewards program is required to have a unique email address that is verified, a unique mobile phone number which is verified by SMS, and an accurate residential address (maximum of two accounts per physical address).
  • Ultimately though, the best form of protection against negative reviews is a proactive approach to building the online reputation of the business. We provide businesses with tips on how to encourage their customers to enter reviews so that in the case of a negative review, the balance of opinion still provides an accurate measure.

Protecting Consumers from Fake Positive Reviews

Most businesses reviewed on WOMO find that they get a lot of customer enquiries from positive reviews – especially once they have 5-10 good reviews. Which of course means that it can be tempting for businesses to enter fake positive reviews. Again, the integrity of the reviews on WOMO is our ultimate asset and we have little tolerance for this type of behaviour. Consumers need to be able to trust the reviews and we do everything in our power to ensure all reviews are from real customers and provide an accurate reflection of the business.
  • As a user-generated site, to some extent we rely on users to point out reviews that seem a little fishy. Any user can flag a review as “Inappropriate or Suspect” which triggers our investigations process. Fortunately, it’s usually fairly easy to spot fake positive reviews as business owners can’t help but write an overly glowing review full of gushing descriptions.  Often these fake reviews read more like advertising copy than a real review….which of course prompts users to flag them (if they’re not picked up by our automated systems).
  • Similar to negative reviews, all reviewers on WOMO are required to have a unique email address and any reviews flagged by users are subject to IP address scrutiny and other measures which link them to other accounts.
  • Our systems also take into account other patterns about reviews (including timings, writing style, account details and more) – these help identify any manipulation by the business.
  • If a business is found to be submitting fake reviews, their listing is placed under increased scrutiny to ensure future activity is legitimate.
  • In some (rare and extreme) cases, new reviews for particular businesses are blocked and can only be submitted by contacting our team directly.
  • Occasionally we're questioned about whether businesses on the Happy Customers Program (a paid listing which helps businesses build their online reputation) are subject to the same scrutiny and the answer is – absolutely! Businesses on this program benefit by being able to choose a “favourite review” to appear at the top (but this is clearly marked), and if someone is submitting a negative review, they are prompted to contact the business about this (but can still post the review if they wish). Businesses can never pay to improve their ratings.
  • We have had cases where businesses on the paid program have been removed and in 7 years of operating, there has only ever been one case involving the ACCC for a serial offender.  Of course, WOMO cooperated in full and the reviews in question were removed.
  • Finally, if fake positive reviews ever do slip through, the business will soon attract new customers that expect to receive great service. If the business fails to deliver on those expectations, then they soon find themselves with negative reviews – so in a sense, false positive reviews are self-correcting.
Unlike some review sites, WOMO does not employ people to do reviews and likewise, we do not simply remove reviews that a business doesn’t like. We straddle the (often uncomfortable) ground where we provide a resource which is fair to both consumers and businesses. In this position, we are regularly threatened with legal action from businesses – but we do our best to ensure that the truth is heard in a way that does not incite litigation. Likewise, we are regularly accused of being too lenient on businesses by requiring too much of reviewers.
 
Ultimately though, the good businesses that look after their customers love us, and legitimate reviewers that are interested in sharing their experiences don’t have any trouble with their reviews. We always try to operate in a very transparent manner and stand by the original vision for WOMO to help people find the best businesses and avoid the worst.

Skyler

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