How ‘24-Carat’y are the reviews you read!

|May 7, 2015 0
No matter how loud someone is ‘yelp’ing or how ‘amaz’ing a review sounds to be; words, both positive and negative, are now coming with a barrel of salt

Pratima H

INDIA: Silence is golden but the speech from someone you can trust in a world crowded with umpteen brands vying for your attention and mouse’s turn, is well, platinum these days. After all, who better to pour an objective, unbiased, sane, balanced review in your glass of curiosity than someone who has just used ‘that’ brand or service or read ‘that’ book, eaten at ‘that’ restaurant, endured/enjoyed ‘that’ movie, been mistreated by a bouncer at ‘that’ internationally-worshipped coffee chain?

A neighbour’ verdict about a pest-control service or TV reception has always the one to blindly go by, but the world is no more what it used to be. Morphed with technology-powered anonymity, blighted by greed and roach-ed with corruption, some reviews in this new world are coming under a new arc-light these days. You may have adapted yourself to that occasional phoney product but a counterfeit product review, whoa! That’s something new!

Objective! Unbiased! Sane! Fair! Hold on to those exact words as we take you through a walk down some recent headlines and happenings in the online world. Looks like people in and around e-review sites have been busy writing more than just report cards.

Let’s Talk Suits This Shopping Season (and Lawsuits)

The year 2015 has barely inched towards a full quarter and the air is reeking of court-room theatre already.

The latest in this series is a good place to start with – A supposed full-stop to the class-action battles that Yelp has been facing.

Vince S., VP Communications & Public Affairs wrote this January 2015 celebrating Yelp’s win in this topsy-turvy saga: “The FTC recently concluded a deep inquiry into our business practices and informed us that it will not be taking any action against Yelp. The FTC looked into our recommendation software, what we say to businesses about it, what our salespeople say about our advertising programs, and how we ensure that our employees are not able to manipulate the ratings and reviews that we display on our platform. After nearly a year of scrutiny, the FTC decided to close its investigation without taking further action. This marked the second time that the FTC had looked at our advertising practices and ended its inquiry without further action.”

Vince also layered the assertion and clean-chit by citing an independent study conducted by the Harvard Business School which is said to have found that Yelp’s recommendation software “does not treat advertisers’ reviews in a manner different to non-advertisers’ reviews. “Additionally, some businesses decided to test these claims in court and brought a number of legal cases against Yelp alleging that we played favorites with advertisers or harmed non-advertisers. None of these cases have been successful. Most recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs involved lacked facts to back up their claims.”

There is nothing over-the-top in this self-patting note at Yelp if we look at how the site has been flagellated with one lawsuit after another on the issues of ‘fair reviews’, a core ingredient in the Ramen bowl of noodles of brand information it serves.

Like the class action lawsuit, led by investor Joseph Curry, that made a lot of noise some time back and alleged Yelp of requiring businesses to pay to suppress negative reviews.

The Federal Trade Commission has been stacking up a good pile of complaints about Yelp, where people have been contending that Yelp would solicit businesses to buy advertisements on the Company’s website and would resort to a retaliatory move in absence of businesses nodding along. Just how does this retaliation manifest, in view of this plaintiffs –  by deleting positive reviews and even claiming that such deletions resulted thanks to some updated automated algorithm.

If Yelp is breathing a sigh of relief with the latest judgement than Amazon has started rolling up its sleeves the last few weeks. The big, hard-to-ignore e-tailer filed a suit against the operators of several websites. It is alleging that some businesses write fake reviews for profit about products posted on its site. One such accused would be Jay Gentile, who runs buyazonreviews, and others like bayreviews and buyreviewsnow have also come under the line of fire.

Amazon is understandably worried that fake reviews have an undesirable (and of course unethical) effect of skewing ratings of the products on its site. The likes of Jay Gentile have been implicated of peddling product reviews, like offering fake verified reviews for a price or promoting shady endorsements.

Now this gets really interesting here. Yelp did something similar against a site named Revleap. Vince S., VP Communications & Public Affairs at Yelp had stated in Feb 2015,  “We sometimes hear reports about “reputation management” or “small business marketing” agencies that promise (for a fee, of course) to help businesses remove negative reviews and gain more positive reviews on Yelp. Some of these agencies imply that they have a special relationship with Yelp or even lead business owners to believe that they are acting on behalf of Yelp. These offers are scams, but some business owners unfortunately fall for them and end up paying dearly, both with their bank accounts and their online reputations. Today we’re taking a stand to protect business owners from falling prey to these misleading companies by filing a lawsuit against a recurring offender named Revleap.”

It highlighted that Revleap, which has cycled through various names including “Yelpdirector” and “Revpley,” has spammed businesses with unsolicited messages claiming that they can get good reviews to stick and remove bad reviews. “One thing Revleap actually does, it seems, is bombard their clients’ customers with surveys. Customers that respond favorably, and agree to post a review, are entered in a drawing for gift cards in an effort to deceptively boost their clients’ reputations.” Yelp’s team continued to explain.

It narrated that such business models not only come into light for federal and state regulators who often crack down on businesses that try to artificially inflate their online reputations but also make Yelp’s role here important in distinguishing between companies that are playing by the rules and those that are using Yelp’s name to make a dollar by taking advantage of unsuspecting small businesses.

So this is a bit of déjà vu for sites like ‘buyamazonreviews’ which encourages reviews in a strange fashion when it reportedly cajoles, “Are you tired of your products not being seen, tired of competitors leaving bad reviews? The solution is simple. Buy Amazon reviews. You can have unlimited 4 and 5 star reviews this week. Our skilled writers look at your product, look at your competitor’s products and then write state of the art reviews that will be sure to generate sales for you.”

No doubt Amazon has decided to give such sites a piece of its mind and sue them for trademark violations, unfair competition and deceptive acts.

What Yelp, Amazon etc are facing could be an alarm that brand-curators, online marketers, social networking armies and product managers can hardly hit a snooze button on. Such accusations or lawsuits (whether as plaintiffs or defendants) matter for names like Yelp even if it has been on a winning streak in court-room wrestling.

But the bigger issue for a site of this scale and stature (it had a monthly average of 142 million unique visitors in Q1 2015 and had written more than 77 million rich, local reviews by its users at the end of Q1 2015) is something way beyond legal warfare – Can it repose trust of consumers who believe in the integrity of online reviews or social ‘word of mouth’? Is this a good time to consider what breaks or makes credibility of ‘opinions’ for millions of consumers out there?

Are you wondering if online reviews, in the first place, are worth this whole debate at all?

Do Online Tick-boxes Matter?

According to a 2014 Nielsen study, 85 per cent of consumers look to content from experts before they make a purchasing decision and there are as many as 67 per cent of consumers who feel that an endorsement from an unbiased expert would make them more likely to purchase a product. Looks like that consumers incline towards digital content five times more today than they did a year ago.

It was a few months back when Influence Central screamed that high-star ratings on e-commerce review sites like Amazon directly impact consumers’ purchasing decisions and how as big a number as 70 per cent of Moms said they are more likely to purchase a product if it receives high-star reviews.

As per a latest survey now the scene has turned much more review-dotted if Influence Central is reckoning it right. Some 91 per cent trust blogs as a source of product information; 83 per cent find the product recommendation of an influencer more authentic than traditional media and 92 per cent have even purchased a product based on influencer’s recommendation, as the report filters out.

Think of people who rarely seek reviews for a specific product they have in mind to buy, and you are looking at a paltry number of two per cent against a whopping 91 per cent of consumers who consider an online review more important than input from a salesperson in a store, and 87 per cent of consumers say they check online reviews for both online and brick-and-mortar purchases. In fact, there are those who after reading online reviews, will go buying the product online (77 per cent), and 23 per cent will go to a brick-and-mortar store to make their purchase.

As of now, sites like Amazon are topping the ladder here with 48 per cent of consumers considering reviews on Amazon to be extremely important, and 80 per cent of consumers consider the reviews on Amazon to be extremely or very credible. Other top sites in which consumers rely on online reviews as extremely or very important are Target (67 per cent), Best Buy (64 per cent), Walmart (62 per cent), eBay (59 per cent), Trip Advisor (55 per cent), Toys R Us/Babies R Us (53 per cent) and Kohl’s (50 per cent).

Now is it not all the more critical that sites and brand uphold transparency and integrity in the whole system of reviews when so much is resting on the word that travels around these places?

As the Internet, eCommerce and the power of online media grows, it is important for the medium to remain clean, Brand expert and CEO, Harish BijoorConsults Inc. Harish Bijoor strongly advises here. “Today, unethical competition does post ghost reviews and at times employs trolls who go behind brands and people, at the push of a button. It’s time to attack this with vigour.”

His suggestion to batten the hatches appears all the more well-timed when you dare for the following close-up at the customers.

Has the ‘Trust’ factor been dented?

Yes, Ogilvy was quite an early bird to say ‘your consumer is not a moron’ but it’s time we paid heed to what the legend cautioned about.

Do you know that of the online reviews customers read; only 62 per cent are believed to be genuine reviews from real customers? Would you be worried as a brand if someone told you that 89 per cent of consumers distrust most online reviews posted from a stranger who does so anonymously (e.g., someone who does not use their real name)? In fact, if strangers use their real name and a photo, this distrust would slide quickly to only 23 per cent.

The same Influence Central study also unearthed a very fascinating observation. There are 90 per cent of consumers who feel certain that they can always or most of the times tell if a reviewer is exaggerating; and 86 per cent report confidence in detecting bias. It is only 18 per cent of consumers always trust personal recommendations much more than online customer reviews.

The Nielsen study also noted that expert reviews made consumers 88 percent more aware of brands than content directly from companies, and they were also 50 percent more credibly than user reviews.

This phenomenon is giving sleepless nights as well as never-before opportunities for brands and marketers. That’s why the malaise of fake reviews has to be addressed strongly before it runs berserk into an epidemic.

Ask Nikhil Ganju, Country Manager, TripAdvisor India and he shares the concern and the gravity of this situation. “We are well aware of the existence of companies trying to solicit fake reviews for money, and we are very aggressive in our efforts to catch them and to penalise those businesses attempting to use their services. At TripAdvisor, we employ a variety of sophisticated fraud detection techniques to track down these companies but we are not complacent – we are constantly enhancing and improving our fraud detection systems to maintain the integrity of our site.”

Faisal Farooqui, CEO, MouthShut dismisses the apprehension as of now and asserts that brands indulging in fake reviews is not a critical issue in the Indian reviews space. “Of course, you have the occasional brand that would love to praise its own products on a reviews platform, but then the alert Indian consumer is prompt to detect such a review, and flag it.”

That’s where veteran of the industry, Bijoor brings in a moot point of sorts. “This is the day and age of science and scientific tracking. Algorithm-tracking of veracity is a great way to go. If pursued by brands with passion, there will be lots of exposure of mal-intent online.”

Algorithms, hmm!

Using Technology for a ‘Gold’ standard

In theory, algorithms are actually the ways purportedly engineered to confront the very problem of unreliable reviews and ensuring transparency and they should be the spine of sites that depend so much on fair and timely reviews.

But sites like Yelp have faced a Faustian bargain there. They deployed an algorithm to weed out fake reviews submitted by business owners, relatives and friends but that very screening was often misunderstood and it was criticized for these automated removal programs which accidentally erased positive reviews written by legitimate customers also. The baby could go down with the bath water and more so when Yelp has also been accused of keeping everything close to its chest when it comes how exactly the algorithms and review system works

Farooqui  is upbeat about the cure part and shares that at MouthShut, the team takes great pride in keeping platform free of fake reviews. “We work hard to provide real reviews from real consumers. We use a mix of algorithms and manual screening to identify fake reviews. While we cannot reveal the intricacies of our process (for obvious reasons), we have a compliance team that works to promptly stamp such reviews as “fake”. The presence of this stamp is very shameful for the brand, and alerts our readers [to fakes] when they read such reviews.”

Tools like Consumer Alerts program are another way to curb the digression. In January 2015, Kayleigh W., Communications at Yelp pointed that Yelp began its Consumer Alerts program in October of 2012 to help consumers make more informed spending decisions. “Our team of detectives is on a mission to catch businesses which may be trying to mislead consumers. We place a clear warning on the front of the offending business’ Yelp page, and link to relevant evidence. In the past, the program has alerted consumers to deceitful behavior by urgent care facilities, doctors, dentists and more – exactly the types of businesses that consumers shouldn’t have to second guess.”

It released 85 new Consumer Alerts for businesses that week highlighting players who were attempting to buy or offer rewards for positive reviews and some that had a large number of reviews submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address (a hint that someone may be trying to artificially inflate their rating).

“A Consumer Alert message will be posted on these business’ Yelp listings for 90 days. Although most of the millions of businesses listed on Yelp do play by the rules, and Yelp’s automated recommendation software is already in place to identify and weed out fake reviews, consumers have a right to know about the bad apples before deciding to spend money at their businesses….Likewise, you’d probably appreciate the heads up that tattoo removal shop Dr. Tattoff was caught offering Starbucks and gift cards in exchange for Yelp reviews before turning to them for help painfully removing that mistake you made during college spring break. Or if you’re preparing for a big apartment move and want to hire someone you can trust, it’d be helpful to know that we discovered Roadway Moving in Manhattan, NY was offering $100 American Express gift cards in exchange for 5-star reviews. ” Kaleigh informed.

As Ganju reasons, ultimately, the best way to stop these companies is to cut off their revenue supply. As such, we take serious steps to penalize businesses who are caught using such services to deceive travel consumers, and we ensure business owners are fully aware of our strong stance in this matter.  “As a result, attempts by businesses to use these types of companies are rare, because the vast majority of business owners understand the tremendous risk to their reputation if they attempt to mislead consumers.” He observes.

For Mouthshut, picking up the phone and calling CEOs of various brands that have planted promotionals to alert them is not something that Farooqui or his team has apparently hesitated from. “In some rare cases, we have also raised this issue through our lawyers.” He shares.

“At MouthShut we believe in empowering our users with tools that can effectively curb fake reviews. Just like any individual can post reviews, other readers can rate the usefulness of a review. Essentially, fake reviews get a ‘Not Useful’ rating and are buried at the bottom. Our position as India’s leading consumer review platform, places a heavy moral burden on us to provide a true consumer review platform.”

All such approaches and tools are steps in the direction as the can no more be kicked down the road of flaky reviews.

Is that enough though in a world where the issue has reared its head again and again, from 2009 when a company had to come up with a public apology decrying its employees’ use of fake testimonials to 2011 when tablet maker WeTab’s MD was caught and had to resign for posting five-star reviews under fake names.

It’s high time that sites and brands come together on the table and see things from a fair corner. Unless of course they are okay with what Chef Michele Massimo at Botte Bistro in California did when he flagged an unsual form of protest by proactively seeking only not-so-positive, one-star ratings from customers.

After all, customers too like a golden bar of trust but if it comes down to disappointment and anger, they are nothing but – what’s that word? Mercurial.

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