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?
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.