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Could fake online reviews become illegal?


Could fake online reviews become illegal?

A new government proposal is seeking to come down harder on companies that attempt to deceive people online, and the part that has grabbed the headlines is the suggestion that writing or hosting fake online reviews could become an offence.

Online reviews are now big part of how we shop and make decisions. One study says that 91% of us read them, and that 84% of us trust them as much as a personal recommendation. That’s despite the fact that they can easily be manipulated in one of two ways.

The first of these ways is sabotage. It’s often the case that because many people rate products and services as five stars by default, we take the one- and two-star reviews more seriously, but how do we know they’re fair? When you read a review of a hotel being dirty, overpriced and full of rude staff, can you be sure it wasn’t written by a rival hotel from across the road? I recently read the reviews of a book on Amazon that had an average rating of three stars, which is quite poor by Amazon’s standards, but it turned out most of the poor reviews where written by people who had got into a political argument with the author on Twitter and had nothing to do with the book.

Perhaps a more common misuse of review sites, however, is for companies to churn out positive reviews of their own products and services under the illusion of being customers. I’m almost certain I came across a case of this recently when I had a poor experience with an item and seemed to be one of many going by Trustpilot reviews. However, the company was still maintaining an average of over four stars. This was because although the company was getting detailed scathing reviews almost daily, it was also benefiting from five or six five-star reviews every day. These were all a similar format of being just a couple of sentences long, unspecific in detail, written in fairly poor English and, most unusually for an online service, all praised an individual staff member.

It certainly seemed suspicious, but I can’t prove this was an example of fake reviews, which is where this proposal may face some difficulty. The fact that it mentions both writing and hosting fake reviews could also be problematic, as a company could be hosting fake reviews unwittingly.

Other parts of the proposal seek to give the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority more powers to tackle unethical online business practice, and it includes misleading subscriptions that are difficult to cancel, and safeguarding people’s money in pre-payment schemes should the company go bust, as happened with the Christmas hamper company Farepak in 2006.

Even the best companies get the occasional negative review, and we’ve written before about what you can do about them, but businesses operating online should make every effort to be transparent and trustworthy. With more and more people shopping on the web, customers should be as confident doing this as they would be in stores. For help in establishing authenticity and trust online, without sneaky tactics like fake reviews, speak to us at Engage Web.

John Murray
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