Are fake online reviews crushing consumer confidence?

While a certain percentage of them are almost certainly suspect, customer-driven online ratings and reviews are just too powerful to simply ignore. But does anyone really trust them?

Sure, a five-star review seems like a very good thing to be attached to a product. Batches of them may sway a consumer to buy that countertop microwave, adjustable baseball hat or 100-percent-pure-certified organic maple syrup.

But what if those items had only five star reviews, and not one bad thing said about them? Can that content really be trusted?

In October, Amazon sued more than 1,000 sellers of phony product reviews, a follow up to its first batch of such lawsuits that went out in April.

And while it’s certainly wise to be wary of what you read, consumer-generated content – content that includes reviews – may be too valuable to be ignored. Seventy-one percent of people read consumer reviews before making a purchase, according to a study conducted by Bazaarvoice, a company that helps companies and brands with authentic consumer generated content. The study also found that seven out of 10 U.S. consumers have questioned the trustworthiness of reviews across the web.

"If you go to a site and everything you see is five stars and looks like it's written by a marketing department, common sense is going to tell you something feels off," says Jennifer Griffin, vice president of content integrity and insights for Bazaarvoice.

The bad five-star review

Brands and ecommerce websites have a vested interest in making sure the reviews that appear on their websites are from real customers, not bots or services that are paid to write glowing five star love letters. There’s even been a recent online/Twitter movement of sorts, #noreceiptnoreview, aimed at what its proponents (led by restaurateurs and food critics) claim are a preponderance of fake reviews on the travel site TripAdvisor, which publishes more than a quarter-million reviews of restaurants and hotels. The #noreceiptnoreview campaign wants to ensure that TripAdvisor users can only post a review of an establishment if they provide a scanned receipt.

A recent study conducted by PowerReviews and Northwestern University's Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center found that purchasehood peaked when the average rating on an item is between 4.2 and 4.5, then drops as the rating approaches five.

"Our inference is that consumers perceive all five star reviews as too good to be true, and they discount it," says Edward C. Malthouse, research fellow at the Media Management Center, which is a partnership between Medill and Kellogg. "They can't just scrub all the negative ones because eventually consumers will figure out that all the negative ones have been scrubbed."

Online ratings and reviews: it's a trust Issue

If consumers don't think they can trust reviews, a site might not just lose that sale, but a customer for good.

That's why DealNews polices what Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing for DealNews calls their "fairly healthy commenting community." The site collects and curates deals from around the Web and picks what they see to be the best 200 or so to share with their readers, who can then share their experiences with the deal, and then some.

"We really like to get their input if they really believe a deal is good or whether they think there's a better price elsewhere," she says.

The site knows that if comments are fake, spammy and clearly dropped onto the site by a manufacturer who wants to promote an item, they'll lose readers.

"It's a trust issue," she says. "You really want to show them that you have content that will be consistently of a certain standard and therefore will be worth their time. If they are constantly seeing content that is suspicious to them, they're not going to trust the information you're giving even if it's not from Deal News."

Being authentic in online reviews

DealNews' main form of user-generated content is comments, but on most ecommerce websites, it's reviews and those star ratings. For its clients, Bazaarvoice, whose clients include Adidas, Chicos and Geico, has created an Authenticity Policy, which is an agreement that governs behavior of both Bazaarvoice and clients to ensure that consumer generated content is authentic.

The three tenants of this policy is that the content is free from fraud and spam; free from edits, classification and alteration; and transparent. For the last tenant, they ensure that companies are not asked to write positive reviews and that if consumers are offered compensation for positive reviews, that transaction must be disclosed. Reviews that meet these standards are marked with an Authentic Views Trust Mark.

"We're trying to empower customers or end users by helping them make better purchasing decisions," says Griffin.

In that same survey, Bazaarvoice found that 44 percent of U.S. consumers says they would be more trusting of reviews if they saw a trust mark and accompanying description of anti-fraud policies.

The policy has also been used as a model for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's authenticity guidelines code of ethics.

While Griffin says it's hard to pinpoint who is at fault when bad reviews infiltrate a site, companies need to make sure they're stopped, period. "People are savvy. They're also going to do their own research. To help maintain and keep reviews viable, we believe they need to be authentic," she says. "It's an important vehicle for making purchasing decisions."

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