HomeOPINIONThe dark side of online reviews

The dark side of online reviews

Word of mouth is a powerful tool.  We spread news, both good and bad, like wildfire through our circles, applauding the efforts of a business that has gone the extra mile and vilifying those who leave us wanting. In today’s technologically driven world, we are able to hear more word of mouth than ever before, especially from those who we’ve never met.

What is concerning about this issue is that it calls into question the integrity of online reviews. The inevitable creep of something insidious has seemingly penetrated a trusted site that the world relies on for honest reviews, essentially cutting to the core of TripAdvisor’s business, the reason we use them in the first place. Likening the affront to a red angry face given by a Trade Me user who you moved heaven and earth for to ensure a good trade, it simply isn’t fair.

While there will be the inevitable posts and reviews on these sites from vitriolic patrons who have had a bad experience, sacked staff who have their own vendetta, or unscrupulous rivals trying to get a leg up – the trafficking of bad reviews is becoming a worldwide problem. For TripAdvisor, the effects are devastating. 

In the last few months, TripAdvisor, a trusted site, has come under fire.  A trusted site helps us to make purchasing decisions, as we have come to rely on a plethora of sites to tell us where to eat, where to stay, what’s good and who’s bad – Trade Me, BookaBach, NZ Holiday Homes, TripAdvisor, MenuMania, Wotif and Hotels.com are just some of the sites we frequent.

The benefit of these sites is that it can quickly become apparent whether or not a prospect is going to be positive, depending on the reviews given by previous customers. It’s the voice of the people, not food critics, that ultimately has influence over our behaviour.

In December, Stuff.co.nz reported that Italy’s competition watchdog had fined TripAdvisor NZ$791,359 for publishing “misleading information” in some reviews. Stuff said the fine followed a seven-month investigation into whether TripAdvisor does enough to avoid publishing fake reviews while presenting them as genuine. The investigation was sparked by complaints from Italian consumers and hotel owners.

Some believe that one has to travel to the murkiest depths of the internet to unearth a fake review trading hub, a pay for service operation intent on bringing down a business in this most passive-aggressive way.  Many will be surprised to find that these are being traded openly on sites such as Fiverr.com, the world’s largest marketplace for goods costing US$5, whether you wish to buy Twitter followers, Facebook likes, Instagram friends or fake reviews.  It’s more commonplace than you think.

The fall-out from this incident has seen those who are trying to scam and fake reviews think twice about their behaviour, while TripAdvisor updates its policies and swings into crisis management mode.  Stuff.co.nz reports that the Italian authority gave TripAdvisor 90 days to respond, saying its move was aimed at ensuring consumers did not make decisions based on untrue information.  A fair attempt by the watchdog to put the trust back into trusted sites.

This story was originally published in NZ Retail magazine issue 737, April/May 2015.

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