Oobah Butler now works for Vice.com, the online magazine, but before that "My first job was writing fake reviews for restaurants, I would do that and they would give me a tenner, The business's fortunes would genuinely be transformed."
...it is an engaging story about a young man who set out to see just how far he could go trying to get a restaurant that did not exist up the rankings on TripAdvisor, with nothing but a laptop and a mobile phone (oh! - and a Shed).
But there is a very serious side to this story for businesses, and that is: 'Just how can we - and just as important, our customers - trust reviews?'.
Reviews - a short history
Reviews sites - from TripAdvisor to Angie's List to Yelp to Google (now the dominant player in reviews) - were all born out of Web 2.0, when the web transitioned from a 'place where businesses told you about themselves' to a 'place where consumers could tell each other what they thought of businesses'.
Along with that development came the bad boys - people who were intent on manipulating this new technology for their own dubious ends. It started with some businesses writing their own reviews and quickly morphed into a cottage industry: people being paid to write reviews, positive (about the businesses paying them) and negative (about those business's competitors).
But we are now seventeen years downstream from the launch of TripAdvisor. What are the government and the reviews industry doing to ensure that the world of reviews, which billions of consumers rely on every day for choosing everything from a pizza to a cancer specialist, is reliable?
The CMA - the responsible UK regulator - has introduced a code of practice which governs what businesses can and cannot do. It is tough and we expect to see it being enforced through the courts any day now. Woe betide the business that is caught manipulating reviews.
The reviews sites?
As with so many things 'web', so many reviews sites originate in the USA, the home of the free and, importantly for reviews and those relying on them to be accurate: 'the home of freedom of speech'.
The problem we currently face is that dedication to absolute freedom of speech extends to reviews. Far too far, in our humble opinion.
This may be funny (for some) - but is this kind of thing helpful to consumers (we're guessing potential guests were already aware of the ownership!)?
Do you think any the following are helpful?
- a reviews site that allows reviews of the business based on its owners' assumed or perceived political opinions, irrespective of whether or not the reviewer has been a customer of that business?
- a reviews site that allows reviewers to post reviews of businesses they have never actually used?
- a reviews site that allows the friends of people who have used a business to post reviews supporting that person's standpoint, when they themselves have no first-hand experience of the business?
- a reviews site that places 100% of the onus on the reviewed business to prove that a critical reviewer has never used the business under review?
Are we OK with...
- reviews sites allowing businesses to choose just which customers they invite to write a review?
- reviews sites promoting the reviews of paying businesses over those of those businesses that don't pay them?
- reviews sites refusing to publish a review unless the reviewer provides documentary evidence to support their review?
Reviews - the future
The first CMA disciplinary action cannot happen soon enough for us - whether that is directed at an individual business or a reviews site (one US site has already ceased trading in the UK - we suspect because of some of the issues mentioned above).
Reviews must be seen to be credible, not 'quite credible' or 'nearly credible', and that goes for the headline scores themselves as well; these are increasingly used as an 'at a glance' guide by consumers who will choose a business scoring 4.5 over one scoring 3.5 every time.
Our current solution
We advise almost all our clients to focus on Google - first and foremost. Why? Because Google reviews are always the first reviews seen in search and, importantly, are - these days, thank goodness - attached to a real person, someone with a traceable G+ account.
Any review that is invited through HelpHound has been moderated and can be challenged by anyone at any time - so if they are posted to the business's website and Google they can be believed by the person relying on them with almost 100% confidence (no system is, or ever will be, perfect. We are dealing with people's opinions, after all).
We also advise our clients to take Facebook and Facebook reviews seriously for the same reasons (does your business have the Facebook 'Reviews' tab enabled?).
We hope this helps you understand just some of the serious issues surrounding reviews in 2018, if you would like to discuss any of them in the context of your own reviews strategy do please speak to us.
Did you realise it is illegal to select customers to review your business? - read page three of our latest presentation