How to avoid the pitfalls of online customer reviews

Fake reviews

It's well known that a proportion of reviews posted online are not genuine. Some advertising agencies admit to writing and posting positive reviews for clients, and some freelance writers have suggested that they are paid to write positive reviews. Many businesses have also claimed that unfairly negative reviews have been posted by their competitors.

Review sites claim that they do everything they can to weed out fake reviews. For example, they:

  • encourage reviewers to use their real names and photographs when posting
  • are more likely to filter out a review if it is the only one posted by a reviewer
  • use algorithms (mathematical formulas) to filter out suspicious reviews (e.g. those that are overly positive or negative, or a large group of reviews posted for a business over a short period).

If you suspect a fake review, report it to the site concerned.

Reviewers' lack of expertise/objectivity

One of the best things about online reviews is that every customer can express their opinion and be heard. But some argue that this is also their worst aspect, as customers may express ignorant or highly subjective viewpoints. And customers who have themselves been unreasonable have at times posted scathing reviews that fail to mention their own behaviour.

The best way to counter reviews that you think are ignorant or unreasonable is to balance them with reviews from a broader group of people. Remember, most consumers prefer to read 5 to 10 reviews before making a purchasing decision.

Incomplete and unfair ranking

Some critics have pointed out that review sites offer only reviews that customers choose to post, which may not include the best businesses in a particular category.

Furthermore, site rankings are usually calculated using only the scores awarded by reviewers, often drawn from very few reviews. This can lead to strange results, such as a middle-of-the-road coffee shop being ranked higher than a fine dining restaurant. For this reason, critics argue that such rankings are often misleading, and that review sites are of very limited use to customers looking for a recommendation.

Your business is most likely to achieve an appropriate presence and ranking if it has a reasonable number of positive reviews, so encourage these if you can.

Learn more about encouraging positive reviews.

Unfair filtering

Review sites use complicated mathematical formulas to try to identify and remove reviews that they regard as suspiciously positive or negative (and therefore likely to have been posted by business owners or their competitors).

Similar formulas are sometimes used to decide how reviews are ordered on a page, or indeed whether a review that hasn't been deleted appears at all (for reasons that aren't clear, reviews sometimes just 'disappear'). And reviews by those who post frequently are usually given more prominence and weight than those from infrequent posters.

Some business owners have complained that sites have unfairly filtered out positive reviews posted by genuine customers, and placed negative reviews higher on the page than positive reviews. Both practices can affect readers' opinions of a business.

If you feel that a review has been unfairly filtered or ordered on your page, you can contact the site concerned.

Pressuring of business owners

Stories have begun to emerge from more than one country of customers pressuring business owners to provide incentives (e.g. room upgrades, free meals) in return for the customer not posting a negative review. Some business owners have also claimed that certain sites have pressured them to commit to paid advertising in return for the site removing negative reviews, or putting positive reviews higher on their page.

In the United States, some owners have even taken websites to court regarding this issue.

If you feel that you are being unfairly pressured by customers or sites in relation to online reviews, you may like to seek legal advice or report the matter to the Office of Fair Trading.

Losing customers

Research shows that negative online reviews can reduce the likelihood of a customer using your business, particularly if there are no other reviews to provide balance. The best way to tackle negative reviews is to be proactive in managing them.

Read more about managing negative online reviews.

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