Acknowledgements: Thank you to Richard Bell and colleagues from our centre for Digital Business for their thoughts and ideas on this article.
Reviews on websites and social media have been growing increasingly as a marketing strategy. According to recent data from Statista, 68% of survey respondents stated that trustworthy reviews were the most important factor in making a purchase decision. Meanwhile 84% of people said that they trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations. To date, online reviews have been critical to companies and consumers in order to inspire confidence and sell more products or services. Word of mouth now extends to electronic word of mouth where customers will often be strongly influenced by reviews of people they do not know.
Trust and fake reviews
Organisations use business models based on the trust that consumers have in these reviews. TripAdvisor for example is an industry leader in travel reviews. It began as a small traveller review site and has grown to become a go to place to read up on any places or venues before trying them out. Like many review sites however, companies and individuals have become wise to these reviews and are using all kinds of strategies to increase positive reviews. Some of these may range from approaching happy customers for reviews or offering them rewards in return for positive reviews. It has also been demonstrated that some reviews are completely fake. Despite TripAdvisors ‘zero tolerance to fake reviews’, you may recall the case of the individual that set up a fake restaurant in his garden. It quickly became ranked as the top restaurant in London thanks to TripAdvisor reviews and gaming the system, much to the amusement of the prankster.
TripAdvisor, Amazon, eBay and other major sites where reviews are key to the service are reasonably good at filtering out fake reviews from artificial intelligence and bots, but there are many fake reviews written by humans. In a recent case, the FTC fined a company $128 million for fake Amazon reviews. With all of these fake reviews reported in the media, this could start to affect consumer trust in the future.
Positive and negative reviews
So organisations like positive reviews, but some studies have also shown that some negative reviews can also be useful. A balanced mixture of positive and negative reviews has been shown to improve trust and conversions. When a product or service is getting too many negative reviews however, companies can take drastic action to get these removed. This can include companies repeatedly contacting individuals and offering them money to remove reviews. A quick Google search shows a range of companies who are dedicated to removing reviews ‘legally’, but equally there are also illegal practices happening for fake positive reviews or removing negative reviews. A technique known as brushing has emerged in recent times. This involves fake buyers purchasing products using legitimate addresses in order to achieve the ‘verified purchase’ status on products and posting 5 star reviews. So essentially, confused home owners receive a mystery parcel to their house just so that the sender can get another positive but completely fabricated review.
Reviews can also have a positive effect on search engine optimization (SEO) and particularly local SEO it can help products, services and companies to feature higher up in the search engines. SEO has a chequered history of ‘gaming the search engines’ using black hat techniques. Although search engine algorithms have made these old gaming techniques much more difficult, it seems that black and gray hat practices are still alive and well for reviews.
How much trust should we have in online reviews?
We have seen so far that reviews and independent user generated content is to date more influential than other sources of information. Some studies have shown that in some cases, more than half of reviews are fake. For example, this study on Marketing Land showed that 61% of electronics reviews on Amazon are fake and this is a growing problem. Consumers largely still believe and rely on reviews, but their faith is being eroded as more and more evidence and examples emerge of reviews being faked or bought. The media is increasingly reporting on the growth of fake reviews and commodification. It is a huge challenge for companies to think of a way to protect this core part of their business model and faith in their brand. Equally, standards organisations and governments need to issue more fines for those that break the rules surrounding reviews. Unless these are clamped down on, it may start to further erode consumer trust over time.
Depending on the particular company or product, there may be more or less fake reviews. Some skepticism should be exercised and an awareness built up of how to spot a fake review. Consumers need to take time to look beyond the star ratings and read the comments. If comments were posted in a similar date range or sound like an advert rather than a genuine comment, this could be cause for concern. Looking at the mid range (3 and 4 star reviews) may also be valuable to get a more balanced opinion. A large quantity of 4 and 5 star reviews and verified purchases will usually build confidence, but spending some time to tactically review a specific set of comments can give you more faith in how genuine these are.
What do you think? To what extent do you rely upon and trust online reviews?