Last week, in a landmark ruling, an Italian court sentenced a man to nine months in prison for a crime that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been possible: writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor.
The man, who is alleged to have wrote over 1000 reviews for a fee over several years, will serve time for fraud, The Guardian reports.
The case made headlines around the world last week, touted as an example of how the law is catching up with emerging digital industries.
But closer to home, Australian small businesses, which are often at the front-lines of fake or misleading online reviews, say the practice is still common.
Michael Dougherty, the proprietor of the Quality Inn City Centre in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, says at least five in every 50 reviews his business gets online are fake.
“We welcome reviews, that’s how you improve your services and facilities … the inaccurate ones make it tough though,” he tells SmartCompany.
“We had one about twelve months ago where the person had stayed down the road.”
Dougherty says the prevalence of fake reviews has improved recently as online platforms tighten their practices, but it is difficult to deal with the false reveiews that still get through.
“It’s near impossible to get them off, no matter how inaccurate they are, which is very frustrating,” he explains.
Fake reviews aren’t a new problem facing business owners. Last year True Local, itself an online review platform, asked 300 small firms whether they had experienced fake reviews and 33% said yes.
Adrian Camilleri, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Technology Sydney, says around 15% to 30% of online reviews are estimated to be fake, but larger platforms are been working on the problem.
“Large companies such as Amazon use sophisticated software to detect fake reviews based on different indicator such as the reviewer’s location, words used in the review, and the reviewer’s review history,” he tells SmartCompany.
However, Camilleri says fake positive reviews are actually more common than fake negative reviews.
“This is probably because it is less risky to self-inject positive reviews than posting negative reviews about rivals,” he explains.
The issue ranges from businesses writing fake reviews about competitors to online trolls targeting businesses for reasons other than the quality of their goods or services.
Internationally, some businesses have even allegedly taken the extraordinary step of bribing Amazon employees to take down negative reviews, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Don’t ignore fake reviews
So what can small businesses do if they’re targeted by fake reviews?
Liana Lorenzato, marketing director at online underwear retailer Modibodi, says she has encountered fake reviews on several platforms and third party channels.
Modibodi’s policy is to respond to the reviews in an effort to educate other potential customers that may stumble upon whatever platform they’re posted on.
“Use the fake and usually negative review as an opportunity to respond and educate someone who could read it,” Lorenzato tells SmartCompany.
“You know your business and your offering, service or product more than anyone.”
Dougherty echoes that sentiment, saying it’s best to respond, but he says many platforms don’t feature replies as prominently as reviews themselves, which could mean business owners get overlooked.
So what about getting reviews taken down? It’s difficult, Dougherty says.
“The process is fairly convoluted, and once it’s out there it’s out there,” he explains.
Work reviews into marketing plans
Speaking to SmartCompany, Angela Dobele, associate professor in marketing at RMIT University, says businesses need to be prepared for fake or misleading reviews before they occur.
“If an organisation is maintaining an online presence, they’ve elected to engage in that conversational space,” she says.
“As part of that commitment, they need to be on top of it.”
Dobele recommends businesses develop a process for dealing with fake reviews as part of their marketing plans to ensure responses are consistent.
“It has to come back to what your marketing strategy is … [ask] ‘what’s the image we want? Do we be reactive? Or, do we elect as a company not to respond?’” Dobele says.
Ultimately Dobele believes the best route is to avoid retreating away and instead directly address any suspected false reviews. At the same time, Camilleri advises businesses to flag any suspected fake reviews so the online platforms themselves can investigate.
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