The power of ‘word of mouth’, but what about the global online voice?

Whether it’s online reviews or the number of social media ‘likes’, ‘+1s’ or ‘followers’, should we basing our decision on whether to use a service or purchase a product on what they tell us?

According to a recent BBC report,  Navigating the potentially murky world of online reviews, 89% of British consumers are likely to be affected by online reviews. Globally it is said that around 70% of consumers base their purchasing decisions on online reviews, and social media ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are also having a significant impact on customers buying habits. Of course word of mouth has always been a very powerful decision maker for buyers, but now that word of mouth is not just confined to friends and family, but widened to the views of a global online voice. In an American Express article Lisa Gordon, founder and CEO of Pollen-8 said “today’s customers seek opinions from a wide variety of reviewers”, and these customers are not confined to consumers, but businesses as well.

The BBC report highlighted the fraudulent nature of many companies’ online reviews and how positive reviews are being purchased in large numbers. This certainly makes you question how some online businesses, new as well as those who are very established, obtain such large numbers of positive reviews on their products and services.

Some very big and reputable brands have been enticed by click farms, a form of click fraud, where a large group of low-paid workers is hired to click on paid advertising links for the click fraudster. These click farms are also operating as online social endorsement farms to mislead customers. According to a Guardian article back in 2013, ‘click farms have become a growing challenge for companies which rely on social media measurements – meant to indicate approval by real users – to estimate the popularity of their products’. Many of these click farms are in Bangladesh and the reason they do it is that it is a profitable business. In February 2013, Microsoft and Symantec shut down an operation that used up to 1.8 million PCs that were being used to create an average of 3 million clicks per day, bringing in $1m per year since 2009*.

Whereas reputable businesses will proactively seek reviews from their customers, the less reputable are taking a short cut and faking them. In an Institute of Directors video Peter Muhlmann provided an amusing analogy “faking reviews is like peeing in your pants, it’s warm at first and then it gets very cold!” presumably meaning that fake reviews might be a quick solution, but in the longer term they are very likely to have a negative impact on your business due to damaged reputation. As in the case of the headline ‘Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core‘ and ‘Fake Tripadvisor reviewers face legal action

In this revealing video CBC’s Erica Johnson shows us a growing industry that’s designed to deceive.

So what can customers do to identify fake reviews, well we came across a tool developed by Cornell University called the Review Skeptic, which lets you cut and paste a review to see if it’s likely to be real or fake. Admittedly it does say that it is best used for hotel and restaurant reviews, but we thought we’d give it a go. Our reviews are verified, which means that they can only be submitted by customers who have purchased from us; a genuine order/invoice number has to accompany the review. We copied and pasted a number of our customer’s reviews into the Review Skeptic tool and it told us that one was fake, so in our case it was pretty accurate, but not 100%.

Our top tips for consideration when identifying fake reviews

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these then our advice is to ask the company if you can make contact with the review contributor or at least seek further reassurances on other websites:

1. Do reviews sound like a sales ad for the product or company?

2. Is there an unrealistic amount of 5 star reviews?

3. Are all the reviews positive? There should be some that include less favourable comments; no-one is perfect!

3. Are there lots of reviews within a short time period?

4. Do reviews talk about product features, rather than service or quality?

5. Do reviews compare that business’s products favourably against other suppliers’ products?

6. Do reviews use many of the same buzzwords or technical terms that the website uses in describing its products/services?


Author: Carolyn Lewis, Managing Director of Elearning Marketplace Ltd and learning technology consultant.

* How low-paid workers at ‘click farms’ create appearance of online popularity

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