There have been stories in the press over the past few days about online reviews and the Fake Online Reviews investigation by the BBC.
We welcome the news that the Competition and Markets Authority is to investigate whether businesses are posting fake reviews in a bid to unfairly boost trade, and whether it needs to clamp down on the illegal practice.
The business regulator said an initial study had unearthed evidence that businesses were posting fake reviews in sufficient numbers to warrant a formal investigation.
I was invited to appear on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC2 TV programme on Friday to talk about the impact good and bad reviews can have on a business, along with James Westlake from Trustpilot. We’ve worked with Trustpilot for 2.5 years and the reviews we receive on there, together with a number of other sites across the internet, as incredibly important to us. We’re lucky enough to currently be top of Kids and Baby Categories on Trustpilot with over 1,000 genuine customer reviews. Well when I say lucky… we work incredibly hard to deliver good customer service which I know everyone says about their business. It really is true in our case. We keep a constant eye on our reviews across the internet as it’s one of the key ways we find out whether we’re meeting our customers’ expectations and improve our service if we are not.
The revelations about fake online reviews in the past few days are disappointing, but not surprising. When we started trading over 10 years ago there were a handful of online review sites which were unmonitored and subject to real abuse. Anyone could post reviews for their own business and others, good and bad. If your business was in receipt of a fake bad review it was difficult, if not impossible, to get it removed. And if your competitors were posting hundreds of fake positive reviews, it was impossible to compete with their online review ‘status’ unless you were prepared to join in by posting fake reviews yourself. We weren’t.
In recent years online review platforms like Trustpilot and Feefo have really shaken things up, in a good way. But there is always room for improvement.
Over the years we’ve been invited to buy Facebook fans, Twitter followers, YouTube views, Instagram followers and site reviews. Sad, but true. Because there’s always someone willing to game the system, presumably to either balance out the genuine poor reviews they have so they look a little better, or to get lots of online reviews quickly so that a customer will choose their business over someone else’s.
All of us are incredibly short of time these days, and bombarded with communications. It’s not that surprising that only 1 in 10 customers invited to review a product or service is likely to do it, and you can see how tempting it might be to short-circuit that process. And there’s always someone out there willing to help you to do that for a fee.
And yes, we too have been threatened with a bad review if we didn’t do what the customer wanted. It’s very rare, but it does happen.
We’re very proud of Little Sunflowers’ reviews on Trustpilot and on other review sites and shopping portals. We’ve worked hard to get them, you’ve been good enough to leave them for us, and they act like a barometer to ensure we’re meeting your expectations. We carry out regular customer surveys for the same reason.
It’s a pity that a handful of others abuse the system because it brings into question whether reviews for sites like ours are really genuine. I had an email from someone who saw me on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on Friday specifically asking me how I could possibly claim our reviews were genuine. “It’s this dishonesty about authenticity which causes lack of trust. The whole review system is a fraud. But people are pretending otherwise. Please stop pretending! It’s very annoying and damages trust.”
As I explained in my reply, the reason I said our Trustpilot reviews are real is because it’s true. The overwhelming majority of the reviews of Little Sunflowers on Trustpilot can be tracked back to a orders because of the way the review request process works using order numbers which can be traced back to real customers.
But without order numbers it is far more difficult for other businesses like restaurants, hotels, b&bs etc where purchases are made by walk-in customers, often in cash. That means the business owner is relying on something to prompt a customer to leave a review (which sometimes isn’t a positive reason unfortunately), and that review is one person’s word against another’s as to whether they were ever a customer. I’m not sure how you could possibly know that every reviewer had actually visited your pub, hotel or restaurant, and it must be incredibly difficult for those businesses.
Small online businesses like us without a large marketing budget or advertising spend rely heavily on genuine customer reviews. They are sometimes the only thing which prompt a potential customer to choose one children’s clothing business over another when they have never shopped with either before.
Fake reviews are annoying and damaging to the genuine businesses that give great service. We can but hope that our customers can spot fake reviews but that’s sometimes hard to do, so we would always recommend consumers to not only look at online reviews for a business but also their Facebook page, Twitter feed and so on to ensure customer feedback is consistent, particularly when they’re considering purchasing large ticket items for the first time. Sometimes reviewing a company’s whole social media presence can paint a clearer, more balanced picture than online review pages do on their own.
Here is a clip from the Victoria Derbyshire programme (yikes, me on the telly).
The full programme including other news articles of the day is available on BBC iPlayer here until 18 July 2015:
Thank you for all your reviews. They mean the world to us and really help us to continually improve our service to you.