This week saw Amazon come under fire after it was accused of manipulating product reviews through its Vine programme.
Vine allows highly ranked reviewers to post opinions on new and pre-release items on the site. Participants can receive specific products for free.
This week Bloomberg reported that Amazon appeared to be trading free merchandise for reviews of its own products. Since the service is not available to other merchants, this would appear to be disadvantaging possible competitors.
The marketplace denied that it acted improperly, saying that it did not dictate which products Vine reviewers review within the programme and that they were free to select any eligible product. Amazon also said it was working to open the programme to other sellers, saying that it was only closed due to a “technical limitation.”
Whatever the ins and outs of this dispute, it does illuminate the fundamental problems online sellers face in benefitting from reviews while ensuring that they are credible to consumers.
Recent research by Feefo found that 94 percent of consumers use online reviews when looking for a product or service, but 89 percent said they were concerned about fake reviews, up from 75 percent the previous year.
James Dunworth, director at ECigaretteDirect, sums up the problem: “Any site that is running an internal review system is open to the accusation that it manipulates its reviews.”
Dunworth says that his company decided to use an external reviewing system in response to this problem.
“An external review system does not allow you to remove or edit reviews and increases consumer trust in the reviews,” he said.
Dunworth adds that this can be demonstrated to customers through the display of a recognised logo from a reputable review company. However, external reviews do require the service to be genuinely good.
“Some companies are worried about the possibility of getting poor reviews, but as long as your customer service is excellent, and you do everything you can to resolve issues for customers as speedily as you can, your overall score will be excellent.”
Joe Rohrlich, general manager for EMEA at Bazaarvoice says that review manipulation “prioritises short-term gain”.
“By providing a framework which encourages customers to try new goods and leave more content in the form of ratings, reviews, images and comments, retailers can effectively build a platform of trust not only for the brands that they are partnered with, but also the retailer itself.
“Today’s consumers are increasingly digitally savvy and for the short-term gain of increased sales, the inevitable effect is a loss of authenticity and trust in the marketplace. It’s a great example for other online retailers to note and take direction from.”
It is not just sellers themselves who are responsible for unreliable views on their pages. Matthew O’Kane, MD of Nexus Investments, which owns stakes in a number of growing retail companies including home delivery butcher Heartier, says that B2C companies must proactively search for fake reviews from another source.
“[Retailers] have to be resolute in spotting fake reviews that other competitors, customers and/or investors leave on their pages, and focus on getting these removed. This can be quite acute on Ocado where new "healthy" brands are in strong competition.
“Many of these new brands have also received crowd-funding backing and have large numbers of supporters who are keen for them to do well, and sometimes over-keen for others to do less well.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy New, director of marketing at VoucherCodes.co.uk, says that retailers and sellers must resist the temptation to remove reviews which are not to their liking.
“Ensuring the review process remain a priority within the overall customer experience is key to success, as all businesses rely on honest customer feedback, regardless of how big or small they are,” he says.
“Don’t feel tempted to delete or ignore poor reviews and product flaws; there may be underlying issues that the business needs to address and feedback is key.”
The best strategy, he says, is for retailers to “join in the conversation with their customers early on and directly.”
“By engaging with your audience first-hand you can leverage reviews to their full potential and ultimately foster long-term brand loyalty.”
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