Reviewing the Reviewer

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Posted At: April 4, 2013 12:29 P.M.
by Haley Clemons

“Over half of Millennials trust the opinions of strangers online over those of friends and family,” according to bazaarvoice.com.

It is amazing to consider the influence that perfect strangers have over our lives. From the restaurants where we eat to the type of home insurance we choose, guidance from strangers can lead us to our next purchase. Many find comfort in relying on the opinions of the masses rather than one lone critic. By visiting sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places and Citysearch, consumers are able to get a fairly good sense of an establishment or business before ever entering its doors. The problem: Experts claim that more than 30 percent of online reviews are fake or paid for.

With the public’s focus on customer-generated reviews, the question remains: Is it wrong for companies and brands to pay for positive reviews? This is a sticky subject that can best be described as lucrative taboo. It’s wonderful if your business experiences growth but terrible if the secret gets out. People are searching for unbiased opinions, but is that what they’re getting? Some consumer-review websites are working hard to crack down on bogus critiques.

Yelp has had its fair share of lawsuits, particularly in the area of extortion. But on the other hand, Yelp is sending assistance to its loyal users by seeking out fake positive reviews and letting the public know about the dishonesty. ABC News is calling it, “the Scarlet Letter of the Internet age.”

Some companies make the task easier by exposing their dishonesty through advertisements on Craigslist, offering to pay freelance writers to post as many as 50 positive reviews at a time. Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s vice president of corporate communications, said in an interview with ABC News’ Cecilia Vega that “it’s not just unethical, but it’s probably illegal. And we think we need to let business owners know you can’t go out there and try to mislead your consumers.”

The term “unethical” raises many red flags for a PR pro, because PRSA has made sure to enlighten current and future practitioners on the elements of ethical practices. PRSA’s Professional Standards Advisories explain rules regarding “Pay for Play” and “Disclosure by Expert Commentators and Professional Spokespersons of Payments or Financial Interests.” Clearly, if an individual is paid to express his opinion, then the organization should be transparent about the transaction.

The Code “requires honesty and accuracy in all communications, and requires members to reveal the sponsors for causes and interests they represent and any financial interest they or their clients may have in the outcome of events or individual decisions.” Full disclosure and honesty are the only way to win the race; however, for some businesses, these standards are merely suggestions.

Dishonesty may seem like a fast track to success, but new research is giving the everyday consumer an advantage. Specialists are informing the public of ways to spot fake reviews and alter their perceptions accordingly.

Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine issued details from an academic study conducted by Microsoft concluding, “Spammers are likelier to post multiple reviews for one product or various products made by a single brand. They write very soon after products launch, and their views often differ sharply from most other users.”

Other sources suggest that the real reviews are ones that make comments about the businesses’ physical space and mention aesthetic details, while fake reviews tend to focus more on the reviewer and their personal life. Also, the absence of the reviewer’s name should be considered a potential warning signal. Fake reviews tend to use a screen name that includes random letters and numbers. But, even with all of the clues aiding the public, the practice of paid-for reviews continues.

Perhaps with the assistance of Yelp, companies will begin to see the reality of the situation: Fake reviews are bad for business. Making ethical decisions not only boosts profits, but also enhances the credibility of an organization and encourages good business practices throughout the industry.

When people have faith in a business, it is a win-win situation. We may heavily rely on the opinions of strangers, but no business should be a stranger to ethics.

One Comment

  1. Raegan Adams

    Paying for positive reviews is definitely an unethical and prevalent issue, especially in the travel industry. However, one thing you did not mention, was the other side of it: companies paying for negative reviews as well. Last summer I worked as a marketing research intern at a resort in St. Lucia. During my internship there, I had one specific project where I used Trip Advisor to research and compile data on competing resorts throughout the island. After hours of scrolling through reviews on more than 15 hotels, it was not long before I began to notice an interesting trend of repetitive reviewer profiles who were constantly giving terrible reviews on a number of hotels. On smaller islands such as St. Lucia, the hospitality industry remains extremely competitive and most hoteliers will do anything to get their rooms filled and numbers up. Companies that pay for positive reviews are definitely unethical, but using sites such as Trip Advisor to sabotage competitors and misguide the public is a whole other ballgame.

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