Consumer reviews are a pivotal aid for anyone looking to make a purchase online and there are a number of reasons for their utility; worries about Airbnb bookings for flats that don’t exist, dodgy sellers on eBay, an increasing number of websites for brands that consumers have never heard of, the list goes on… Used by 3 in 4 UK adults (source: CIM), the Competition & Markets Authority claim such reviews influence over £23b of UK spending every year.
Whilst the genuine nature of most reviews is undoubtable, the ease of posting fraudulent reviews has left half of those that use them believing they have seen fakes. Retailers have tried to make a stand though; Amazon introduced a range of measures to prohibit incentivised reviews in 2016, and online review community brands like Trustpilot have become a gold standard for retailers looking to reassure consumers with specialist software that automatically identifies and removes fake posts. Trustpilot claim the problem is minor, claiming to remove 20,000 posts a month from millions of submissions but doubt remains.
A recent BBC Radio 5 live news story has once again put the legitimacy of online reviews in the limelight. They were able to purchase a 5-star review on Trustpilot and unearthed online forums where Amazon sellers offer full refunds to purchasers in return for a 5-star review. This isn’t the first time either, Oobah Butler, a journalist for Vice, was able to make his shed the highest rated restaurant in London by using fake reviews. The surprise here isn’t that these activities still occur, more their rifeness and ease, with Radio 5 live reporting that they started to receive offers within minutes of joining a false review forum. Despite aforementioned measures, Radio 5 live were able to purchase a word-for-word 5-star review on Trustpilot and were approached by a number of Amazon sellers offering full refunds in exchange for a positive review.
Another blow to companies like Trustpilot is the news that sincere negative consumer reviews flagged as suspicious by the companies being reviewed took several days to reappear after the reviewer proved their identity, by which time the review is buried by more recent, positive responses. Trustpilot have looked to reassure consumers that they do everything they can to prevent businesses harvesting negative reviews like this by keeping tabs on how frequently they raise suspicions about posts that turn out to be real.
This news is sure to knock customer confidence not only in the usefulness of reviews but also the companies associated. It’s hard to see what companies can do in the immediate future to increase defences against fake reviews, but this latest shock is sure to see a response. The £23billion pound question is though; how much will this affect online retail sales in the next few weeks and months?