Wednesday 24 April 2019

The future for reviews - could it be bleak?

Writing in yesterday's Times - referring to the Sri Lankan's government's blocking of social media (Facebook and WhatsApp) after the horrific Easter bombings - Lucy Fisher, the Times defence correspondent said...

'The radical move would once have been condemned by the international community as the heavy handed tactics of a dictatorship determined to shut down free speech. In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month, however, resignation is growing that the American companies that own and run these content and messaging platforms cannot sufficiently police themselves and enforce their own rules on content.'

So what has this to do with reviews? Let us try and explain (and please do feel free to comment). Here are five statements that might well have seemed contentious even eighteen months ago, certainly we would not have blogged them back then, but here we are, doing exactly that...
  1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites
  2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews
  3. Reviews can be bought or faked
  4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 
  5. The regulators have done very little to address the situation
Let us examine each of these in more detail...

1. The general public cannot trust reviews sites

Pressure like this forces staff to get reviews from anywhere and everywhere they can (unless you believe this agent was completing in excess of ten sales a month!)

Reviews sites are paid for by businesses. This does not make them intrinsically unreliable, but it is interesting to talk to businesses that have used them. Invariably they make statements such as 'they allowed us to select who to invite and when to invite them' or 'they had a brilliant system that drove negative reviews straight to page two'. In addition to these very 'broad brush' complaints we have a detailed file on each of the major reviews sites going back over the years detailing patterns of review writing and suspect individual reviews.

2. The general public cannot trust Google reviews

Anyone with access to a computer can write a Google review. While the majority of Google reviews are undoubtedly genuine, we see evidence of businesses manipulating Google reviews every day (by cherry-picking, gating or simply asking 'friends, colleagues and family' to write reviews). This is not directly Google's fault, except that Google could, if it decided to do so, instigate procedures to identify and punish such reviews and practices. In Google's favour, they will, if presented with evidence, take action against firms that are gating (pre-qualifying reviewers).

3. Reviews can be bought and/or faked

You don't see advertisements like this on eBay (and many other sites) for no reason. These businesses have customers, and those customers are paying to have their Google (and other) scores inflated. Theses are just a selection from eBay today...

4. Neither the reviews sites nor Google have mechanisms in place to ensure that the reviews they publish are genuine 

Apart from Yelp's infamous 'filter' (that would appear to filter as many genuine reviews as it does fakes or malicious reviews) and Feefo's 'invitation only' system that relies on the business sending Feefo genuine customer email addresses, we see little effort by most reviews platforms to ensure the authenticity of their reviews or their reviewers, and few sanctions on businesses caught manipulating their systems. How many hotels have been 'red flagged'; by Tripadvisor? Ten? - in ten years? We could identify ten hotels in a single London postcode that regularly write negative reviews of their competitors.

5. The regulators have done little to address the situation

The CMA  - the UK government regulator directly responsible for consumer protection in the area of reviews has sanctioned one business since 2015. One. And here is the sanction...

And here is the full post on the CMA's website. Here are the CMA's regulations relating to reviews and our analysis of them. Here is our open letter to the CMA.

Why is this so important?

Because, increasingly, consumers base significant spending and investing decisions on reviews. Not just 'knitwear', but who to invest their life savings with, who to appoint to sell their house or who to entrust their healthcare with. Important, potentially life-changing, decisions.

It would easy for the government to simply say 'reviews cannot be trusted, they're banned'. But this would be to miss a wonderful opportunity to serve consumers' best interests.

Consumers' best interests

These are patently best served by having reviews that are genuine and therefore credible. There is an example for others to follow, and it's called HelpHound. At HelpHound we do everything short of forcing the system grind to a halt to ensure that our clients' potential customers are served genuine and credible reviews.
  • every single review is read by one of our moderators. They are trained to know what to look for and, while a very clever person would undoubtedly sneak a five star review past them on the odd occasion, they would never get a negative through without challenge; the chances of such 'fake positives' making a meaningful difference to an established HelpHound client's score, on Google or on their own site, are so small as to be negligible
  • reviews that contain assertions of fact or potentially misleading statements are always referred to both the reviewer and the business under review for clarification. This does not mean that negative comments are suppressed - far from it - just that those comments must be supported by the facts
  • We have a 'two strikes rule' that all our business customers sign up to when they join. This means that they are allowed one 'mistake' - one review that our moderators decide was written by a connected person (it is invariably a 'keen', often young and inexperienced, junior member of staff). After that they are on a warning, with the ultimate sanction being termination of their contract. How often in the last five years have we had to issue such a warning? Never. Simply because our clients get just how crucial the credibility of their review is
  • Overriding all the above is the core premise that, at the end of the day, the customer's right is to have their review, whatever it states, published on our client's site, and the automated invitation to copy that review to Google will follow as night follows day
So - if HelpHound can do it, why cannot others? That is a bit like asking 'why does Facebook allow live-streaming of mass murder?' - we don't know, we are not Facebook, but we do know what we would do if we were.

So come on government, come on the CMA, but most of all: come on UK Plc. Let's start giving consumers what they want. 

Genuine, reliable reviews of your businesses

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