Review sites offer a tremendous benefit to us as consumers. Whether it’s a restaurant, an electrician or a product, learning from others’ experiences helps us make a better choice. But it also has created a potential for abuse. Anyone can post an opinion, even those with ulterior motives.
In a recent court ruling, a Virginia cleaning business successfully sued Yelp, forcing them to provide the identity of reviewers who had disparaged its business. The business owner had requested the names of the reviewers to determine if they were real customers.
The court ruled that the reviewers were not protected by freedom of speech laws if it could be proven that they were not customers of the business. This is a potentially significant case for review sites, and one that could protect companies from false claims made by competitors or others seeking revenge.
One of the biggest issues businesses have with Yelp is that it ignores requests to remove what they consider to be false reviews. Yelp has no effective mechanism to do so and rarely responds to complaints, based on scores of complaints leveled at Yelp on its own site.
With the power that some rating sites have on the viability of a business, it’s no wonder that businesses are so sensitive to false reviews. It’s one thing to get a bad review from a customer, but not from a disgruntled employee, a customer taking revenge or a competitor.
A single one-star review could significantly lower the overall rating of a business. When a business can’t remove a false review, its only recourse is to try to balance it with a positive review, further corrupting the rating system.
I usually ignore those reviews at the extremes, particularly if they are petty or not well-written. But when making a choice between several businesses, the natural instinct is to pick the one with the highest rating.
The impact of a few negative reviews is not limited to Yelp. I recently heard from the owner of a touring company about the impact that a single negative review had on his business.
While the owner requested that I not divulge his name, I have used his company many times, and it is adored by its customers. Let’s call him Ted.
Ted’s company holds an excellent rating on TripAdvisor; 99.5 percent of the reviews are five stars, and the others are four stars. The company is the No. 1 listing in its area of tourism.
In fact, much of Ted’s success has come from his high ratings and exposure on TripAdvisor. (That’s how my wife found the company). The company is rated No. 1 for its city, No. 1 for its province, No. 1 for its region, and No. 3 for the entire country.
It’s natural for anyone searching to immediately go to a business with so many No. 1 ratings, but that also makes a business vulnerable to a bad rating, and that’s what happened. One day a negative review appeared that Ted later found to be written by a disgruntled employee.
TripAdvisor allows a company to post a public response, so Ted wrote a diplomatic response that countered the review’s contents. You would think that people would then ignore the bad review and not allow it to color their opinion of the company. Not so.
“Nearly every phone call or email we received from potential guests included the line ‘I saw all the wonderful reviews, and while you wrote a wonderful response, I am concerned about the negative review I read,’” Ted told me. “Although about 100 people said this was the best experience of their entire life, and only one person had something negative to say, potential customers were concerned because of the one.”
For Ted’s company, this one negative review had more power than 100 positive reviews. The day after the review was posted, the company’s ranking plunged so far that it was no longer visible on any list, nor did it appear on the first page of any search. One day No. 1 and the next day gone.
Fortunately, TripAdvisor has a process for businesses to contest a bad review. It took several months to complete the investigation and the review was eventually removed, but it cost Ted’s business hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenues.
TripAdvisor assumes the reviewer is correct, and relies on the business to prove otherwise, and that’s not always possible to do. In the case of someone threatening to blackmail you by posting a false review, TripAdvisor has two key requirements. First, you need documented proof. Second, you must submit a report to TripAdvisor before the review is posted.
Eventually Ted’s company was restored to its original top spot, but at a high cost.
Because these sites are so widely used and have such a big impact, there needs to be a way to prevent rogue reviewers from damaging a business. What I would recommend is that if a one-star review is posted and the business files a complaint, the reviewer should be required to provide proof that he actually was a customer by submitting a receipt and specific details of the occurrence.
Not only would this provide a quicker resolution for the business, but it would also improve the reliability of the ratings and discourage fake reviews. As for those businesses that deserve the bad ratings, such a policy would make them more credible.Read More...