Confronting the Reality of Fake Reviews

Online consumer reviews are here to stay, so businesses are wise to pay attention to them and respond proactively when a negative comment appears or risk having a reputation distorted and possibly even smeared.

Online consumer reviews are here to stay, so businesses are wise to pay attention to them and respond proactively when a negative comment appears or risk having a reputation distorted and possibly even smeared.

Almost all consumers say they consult online reviews, but eight in 10 admit they can’t always spot fake reviews, according to a new survey. That should serve as a warning to businesses to police their online profiles and respond proactively to negative comments.

Taking down reviews poses its own perception issues, as Trip Advisor can attest after a public outcry over hotels, resorts and restaurants scrubbing negative reviews from their profiles.

The annual Bright Local consumer survey, which began in 2010, has shown continued growth in consumer use of online reviews. The most recent survey indicated 97 percent of consumer respondents said they looked at one or more online reviews in the past year. Growing reliance on online reviews raises the stakes on fake reviews.

Fake reviews can either be paid compliments or unfairly harsh criticism. In both cases, they can distort a reputation. Nearly 80 percent of consumers responding to the survey say they read a fake review during 2017. Twenty-five percent said they had seen a lot of fake reviews.

“Whether they’re paid-for-reviews making a business look better than deserved or damaging reviews written by people intending to cause harm, these fake reviews could have dramatic ramifications on the fortunes of local businesses,” Bright Local said. “And with more people than ever expecting high star ratings, even one rogue review could cause businesses to drop out of favor.”

It isn’t just businesses that should be concerned. People who rent condos and apartments on their vacations receive reviews by unit owners, which can affect future ability of renters to book desirable places at the best prices and with lower or no security fees.

Clearly, businesses cannot ignore their online reviews or take a meat cleaver to posts that are unflattering. The best approach is to encourage consumers with positive experiences to write reviews. Many consumers will respect an honest appeal for a review from a business owner who acknowledges the importance of online reviews.

Businesses can gain some cred by responding to negative reviews, by owning the cause of the bad experience, offering to make it right with the reviewer and describing steps to avoid a recurrence. In many cases, negative reviews can be avoided by immediately addressing consumer complaints, whether fully warranted or not, in the spirit of “the customer is always right.”

ReviewTrackers has found that more than 50 percent of consumers expect to hear from a brand after they post a negative online comment or review. The most demanding consumers look for a response with 24 hours and, if a response isn’t forthcoming, may post more negative comments.

Another approach, practiced locally by the Landmark Ford dealership, is to promote its positive online reviews, inviting consumers to read them. When a negative post occurs, the dealership apologizes and offers to take the issue offline and resolve the matter. Survey findings indicate that a quick response can persuade a disgruntled consumer that the business cares, even if it has screwed up.

There are companies that specialize in burying or buffing off critical comments. Be wary of approaches that consumer can and will view as inauthentic. Nobody likes critical comments. But a critic who is heard and satisfied can become brand zealot. You never have enough of those and the best way to earn one is by turning criticism into compliments

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.