In September, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that 19 companies were fined $350,000 in penalties for writing fake online reviews.
This came as a result of “Operation Clean Turf,” an undercover investigation that revealed companies were creating fake online profiles on consumer review Web sites and even paying freelance writers from countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh to produce the reviews.
Can consumers trust the authenticity of most reviews online? That’s a good question. And the answer is: It depends. Unfortunately, some companies will do anything for a good review. Others, however, are doing all they can to keep the online reviews space authentic and trustworthy. CMO.com spoke to three brands making true efforts to keep their reviews real.
Esmee Williams, VP of brand marketing at recipe publisher Allrecipes, said her company has been in the online reviews business since 2000. She credits founder Tim Hunt with understanding the risks early on. The company, which posts 25,000 reviews per month, has several safeguards in place, starting with having every single reviewer register for the site. This instills a sense of accountability, Williams told CMO.com.
Next, Allrecipes has technology in place that scans reviews within 48 hours of submission. It looks for foul language and any other inappropriate content, such as selling a product or cruel and unkind behavior.
“We allow negative reviews,” Williams said. “They don’t all have to be positive. If you go to a restaurant and five people try the same dish, someone’s bound to not like it. And if you have those reviews, the content is more believable.”
Reviews are also examined by Allrecipes staff for usefulness. For example, reviews such as “yum” or “mouthwatering,” while not abusive, aren’t really helpful either. These reviews are not published.
“It’s the reviews where someone shares how they tweaked a recipe and why it worked for them, for example, that are really useful,” Williams said.
In addition, Allrecipes doesn’t allow conversations via commenting; it has other platforms for that type of behavior. So, for example, it doesn’t post reviews that are in response to a previous review. It’s a distraction from the actual content, Williams said.
“One new problem we’re now having has to do with fat finger syndrome on mobile,” Williams said. "Have you ever pressed send too soon when writing a text only to see that it autocorrected into something terrible? Because 50 percent of our traffic is now mobile, a lot of these reviews are written via devices like smartphones and tablets. So sometimes a bad review is actually just an accident.”
Yelp is an online city guide that helps people find places to eat and things to do based on the informed opinions of locals in the know. To safeguard against fake reviews, Yelp has recommendation software in place that evaluates reviews and the reviewers, highlighting the quality of the review’s content and also the user’s past activity.
Then the human element comes into play: Yelp has staff committed to looking over the flagged reviews and deciding which ones to keep.
“It’s basically like a sting operation,” Darnell Holloway, manager of local business outreach at Yelp, told CMO.com. “We’ve actually caught companies buying fake reviews on Craigslist, so what we do is we put a note on their page on Yelp alerting consumers. Our goal from the very beginning was to provide consumers with reliable and useful reviews, and that’s why we take this approach.”
Currently, Yelp publishes only about three-quarters of the reviews that come in each day. And its traffic numbers continue to grow steadily. Yelp gets 117 million unique visitors a month and has 11.2 million people using the mobile app. It has a total of 47 million reviews published.
In November, Bazaarvoice surveyed 3,000 adult consumers across the U.S. and U.K. Seventy-one percent of U.S. respondents and 70 percent in the U.K. said that they read consumer reviews before making a purchase decision--more than any other content type considered. However, 48 and 50 percent of respondents in the U.S. and U.K., respectively, believe one or more of the reviews they read online is fake.
Bazaarvoice, which powers the ratings and reviews for retailers like Cabela’s and Dillard’s, said it has 0.3 percent fraud rate.
“We do reviews for some of the best and biggest brands, and they’re really committed to authentic reviews,” said Lisa Pearson, CMO of Bazaarvoice, in an exclusive interview with CMO.com. “That’s why having safeguards in place was really important to us. Our fraud rate is really low, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are still times when a fake review slips through the cracks.”
To combat fake reviews, Bazaarvoice has a technology algorithm in place and also follows up with human moderation. Bazaarvoice staff looks at every single piece of content.
That combination of technology and human moderation isn’t something that a lot of companies are doing, according to Pearson. It’s expensive to staff people, and often companies will just have the software in place. The problem is technology can’t sense nuances such as sarcasm.
Bazaarvoice has a couple of rules in place for moderators. No editing is allowed. They can’t bury bad reviews under the good ones. If the company asked for the review in exchange for a discount for its merchandise, that’s fine, but then reviewer must explicitly say that in the review.
To take it a step further, Bazaarvoice recently announced it would offer clients the Bazaarvoice Authentic Reviews Mark (think: the TRUSTe seal for privacy or Verisign check mark for e-commerce) to identify companies that ensure a genuine, unbiased, and transparent approach to reviews through anti-fraud technology and adherence to industry best practices.
“People can tell when reviews are fake,” Pearson said. “But I don’t think the onus should be on consumers--and that’s a problem with some sites that do have useful reviews--but it’s up to the consumer to filter out the stuff that is not official."