Today every­one is a critic. Although high-end restau­rants con­tinue to be on the look­out for a hand­ful of dis­cern­ing con­nois­seurs and pro­fes­sional writ­ers to rate them, their next review could come from any one of their cus­tomers, com­plete with pic­tures of every course and a run­ning com­men­tary on the expe­ri­ence. What these cus­tomer reviews lack in pol­ish, they make up for in enthu­si­asm and authen­tic­ity. At least that is how it started.

Cus­tomer reviews are now an insti­tu­tion, and, as I dis­cussed in my last arti­cle, they have a real impact on a business’s bot­tom line. There is an incen­tive for busi­nesses to man­age their reviews much like they do their search engine rank­ing. Sim­i­larly, the mar­ket­places that host these reviews have an incen­tive to main­tain con­sumer trust. Much like search, the qual­ity of the infor­ma­tion, whether it is the rel­e­vance of a web­page for a search term or the authen­tic­ity of a review, deter­mines its value to a con­sumer. Google tweaks its search algo­rithm con­tin­u­ously to pro­vide bet­ter qual­ity results to users. As the algo­rithm increases rel­e­vancy, con­tent cre­ators find new ways to manip­u­late their rank­ings. Search engine opti­miza­tion is an indus­try. What will hap­pen to reviews?

 Play­ing the Game for Profit and Fame

Fraud is com­mon in reviews. As the New York Times pointed out, every­one is above aver­age. I remem­ber first real­iz­ing how wide­spread the prob­lem was in 2004, when Amazon’s Cana­dian site had a bug that dis­played the names of anony­mous review­ers. It quickly became appar­ent that authors had been review­ing their own books. Anonymity makes a dif­fer­ence. Researchers at Yale, Dart­mouth, and USC pub­lished a paper in 2012 that com­pared reviews on Tri­pAd­vi­sor, which allows anony­mous reviews, with Expe­dia, which only allows ver­i­fied reviews made by cus­tomers who have pur­chased travel through the site. They found that reviews on Tri­pAd­vi­sor were more extreme: The pos­i­tive reviews were higher and neg­a­tive reviews were lower. Some crowd­sourc­ing web­sites offer review writ­ing as a ser­vice, where busi­nesses can hire writ­ers to cre­ate pos­i­tive reviews for them­selves and neg­a­tive reviews for their competitors.

Mar­ket­places in Search of Veracity

Because com­mu­ni­ties and mar­ket­places are built on user par­tic­i­pa­tion, all mem­bers must feel that they are get­ting accu­rate infor­ma­tion. Con­sumers have strong reac­tions to per­ceived decep­tion, as exem­pli­fied by com­plaints on the Ama­zon dis­cus­sion boards. (Ama­zon echoes the sen­ti­ment and even started a par­ody site where it posts the most bla­tant and obvi­ously fake reviews.) They expect the mar­ket­places to mon­i­tor fraud and take action.  In gen­eral they are. Yelp fil­ters out fake reviews with an algo­rithm they are con­stantly improv­ing, fil­ter­ing up to 25 per­cent of reviews.

If mar­ket­places can­not police them­selves, is there another way? Recently, state reg­u­la­tors issued $350,000 in fines and forced 19 com­pa­nies in New York to cease post­ing fake reviews.

Review sites and online mar­ket­places require trust to work effi­ciently. And if search is any indi­ca­tion, “review opti­miza­tion” will con­tinue to be a challenge.

This post was pre­vi­ously pub­lished on the Adobe Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing blog, June 3, 2014.


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