Right retailers, put your consumer shopping hat on for one moment and picture this… you’re looking for a restaurant while holidaying in the South of France and you see some concerning comments on Yelp about a local eatery which has been recommended to you by a friend back home. Do you still book that table? Maybe. But thinking about it, you probably saw some questionable pictures of several hotel bathrooms on TripAdvisor when you were researching your holiday a few months back, which sent you running to Airbnb to select the converted barn apartment, with its lovingly detailed essays from former guests saying how brilliant your hosts were – and they were right. But they did fail to mention the cockerel who kicks off his day at 4.30am every morning.

What about your last online purchase? Did a one-star rating put you off buying that cordless vaccum which apparently only has five minutes of battery life? Did you end up forking out more money on the newer model?

Today’s time-pressured consumers don’t want to risk booking a table at a mediocre restaurant or spending their hard-earned cash on a substandard product. So they turn to their peers for advice, but one recommendation over the garden fence about a French bistro isn’t enough, they want to hear it from the masses. But do consumers know if they are acting on rational reviews from their peers, or planted reviews to inflate (or deflate) the reputation of a brand?

Fake reviews

This week, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced an international social media campaign to further its efforts to clamp down on the huge problem of fake online reviews.

These efforts aren’t new, the CMA’s 2015/16 Presidency of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) focused on improving practices in this area, with a number of actions cracking down on fraudulent feedback.

One such case involved a US business being reprimanded for posting online reviews written by its own employees, while another involved four Norwegian online newspapers who were not clearly defining the difference between editorial and marketing content.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a CMA investigation into Woolovers found that between December 2014 and November 2015, the retailer chose to publish more favourable customer reviews on its website. According to the competition watchdog, Woolovers staff were told to approve a selection of positive reviews – none below four stars – which resulted in almost half of customer reviews not being published online.

Yair Cohen, internet law and social media lawyer at Cohn Davis Solicitors, said fake reviews don’t just impact consumers who read false information, “the practice is highly uncompetitive and distorts competition and the fair playing field for businesses large and small”.

“There have been suggestions the practice of posting fake reviews should become a criminal offence and that those who write or procure fake reviews should be penalised,” said Cohen, speaking at a Feefo event in London, earlier this summer. “There are certainly criminal elements to it, such as fraud for example, but it is very difficult to prove.”

Public awareness

The CMA’s efforts over the last few years has clearly led to a surge in improving standards for online reviews, and the social media campaign launched this week will aim to increase this awareness.

Cohen agrees the issues around public awareness of online reviews needs to improve. “Some people seem to think that they can post anything they want whether the information is truthful or is made up out of revenge, anger or frustration at a business,” said Cohen. “Sometimes a valid complaint can be warped by a desire to damage a business by mixing truth and false together – it’s OK to be frustrated but it’s not OK to make false allegations.”

He continued: “So much reliance is placed on online reviews that more needs to be done to educate the public on the importance of being truthful and honest. There are different ways this could be achieved, such as a pop-up window reminding anyone writing a review of the importance of honest and the consequences of not abiding by the rules.”

One supplier of online review software, Bazaarvoice, has been investing into its moderation practices to detect fraud and filter out the fake comments. “Ratings and reviews are proven to drive uplift in sales conversion and revenue per visitor for brands and retailers,” explained Olav Bus, head of product marketing, EMEA at Bazaarvoice, who said consumers who interact with online feedback convert twice as often as those who do not.

Debenhams used Bazaarvoice’s online reviews capabilities to its advantage when launching a new makeup range last year. Ahead of the launch of Kat Von D’s products, the retailer sent out 300 samples of four products and received 270 reviews in return, with an average rating of 4.7. Customers shopping the range on launch day could read feedback online straightaway and the four reviewed products had an 18% higher conversion rate.

“The CMA’s efforts to tackle misleading online reviews are undoubtedly a positive step forward,” added Bus. “Our company’s authenticity policy does not support any client who would want to stifle a consumer’s right to post a negative review. Through this approach customers feel safe and empowered to leave fair and honest reviews and retailers can unlock the enormous benefits reviews can bring.”

In fact, Boots believes responding to a negative review gives the retailer the opportunity to shift the way the customer feels towards the way it handled their concerns.

“They might still share their negative experience about a product or service, but they also immediately follow with how they will always buy from us because of how well we handled the issue,” said Bonnie Berrio, customer service specialist at Boots.

How to solve the dreaded one-star rating

Matt West, CMO at another online reviews solution, Feefo, also pointed out that businesses shouldn’t be afraid of receiving negative feedback

“Businesses no longer need to fear negativity – they can learn from it. Through analysis, you can extract insights from online reviews to help sort out any problems quickly.”

He described how developers are working on making online reviews more granular, using artificial intelligence. “The dreaded lousy one-star review ratings, which completely tarnish the reputation of your product, will soon be a thing of the past,” he said.

According to West, AI and sentiment analysis is being used to clearly identify what positives and negatives are being reported for consumers. For example, if the product delivery was late, the negative rating associated with fulfilment would not impact the overall rating of the product quality or its features.

It's all about timing

But asking for post-purchase feedback always comes down to timing. Customers don’t want to be hassled via text or email to leave a review when they’re rushing to complete their online grocery order. Logging back onto the retailer’s website, thinking of something intelligent to say and getting down to writing a short essay about a product you might have bought a fortnight ago, isn’t exactly the top of a customer’s to-do list – especially if that cordless hoover is happily sitting in their home, doing exactly what the customer expected it to do – suck up dirt.

This is where ensuring feedback is asked for as soon as possible is integral to ensuring retailers also receive thoughts from the middle ground – the customers who are neither delighted nor disgusted by their shopping experience.

This is why Georgina Nelson set up TruRating – an app which allows retailers to gain feedback at the point of purchase.

“99% of the content from online reviews websites is written by 1% of the users – as the rest don’t have the time or the inclination to log on and write a review,” she explains. “Retailers relying on these sites for feedback are reliant on the mercy of the feedback left – which contains both genuine and fake reviews that they have little to no control over.”

Nelson decided to pair feedback with payment to get “mass, validated feedback” from the majority of customers.

“Asking customers what they think when they pay means that you can drill down and analyse all aspects of the customer’s experience, in real time at the time which matters, that moment of truth, when they make a purchase. On the back of this, retailers can then make changes to improve performance and increase their brand value. This way we can also work around our great British reserve and give honest responses.”

Steve Younane, co-founder and CEO of Retail Prodigy Group which franchises stores for brands like Nike in Australia and New Zealand, calls his TruRating feedback “gold”.

“We can now clearly identify which areas will have the biggest impact on making our customers happier,” he said.

Closer to home in London, TruRating has been working with Asian restaurant chain, Ping Pong, to gain feedback from customers as they pay their bill. Soon after trialling the solution it reported a response rate of over 90%, generating 4,000 ratings every week and resulting in an 8.1% increase in average spend.

Nelson added: “Good data insights not only allow for controlled experimentation before implementation, they help monitor growth and ensure consistent performance across what really matters to your customers and how much they spend. Consumer-driven data insights allow business owners not only to improve the day to day, but also plan and predict their growth outcomes with greater confidence.”

But we need to remember, whether you ping customers an email to encourage a review post-purchase, or ask a quick feedback question when they pay for their goods, customers can still “go rogue” and leave their opinions all over the wild, wild, west of social media. The important thing is to gather as much of this data in as many ways as possible in order to take action on your consumers’ concerns and complaints, by encouraging reviews – good or bad – but, most importantly, actually reading them.