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GUEST ANALYSIS Amazon is shining a light on fake reviews – but is it too late?

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It’s no secret: reviews make people buy stuff. Depending on where you look, between 60% and 90% of purchase decisions are influenced by online reviews and recommendations.

In a world where online users value the opinions of ‘people like them’ above most else, a review from a stranger now has meaningful clout – and that’s tempting businesses into risking fines and legal action by paying for, or getting paid to produce glowing fakery.

Generating fake product reviews in order to stoke up a bit of interest has become far more sophisticated than simply begging friends and family to go online and say something nice.

With increased sophistication however, there will always be a matching response.

Last year, Amazon took an initial stance by going after four businesses for selling fake reviews. It then followed up by pursuing lawsuits against 1,114 ‘John Does’ who had posted sham customer reviews on its website.

However, it’s vital to recognise the uncomfortable fact that Amazon is itself partly to blame for the proliferation of fake reviews in the first place – by allowing anyone to write reviews for products sold on the site, the retail giant has opened the floodgates for a raft of unverified content. If Amazon had implemented a closed system from the outset – one which demanded proof of purchase before allowing someone to write a review – the widespread distrust of reviews may not have become a problem at all.

Nevertheless, three sellers are now being sued for in excess of $25,000 each by the internet re-tailer for using dummy accounts to post made-up reviews in a bid to drive sales.

Amazon has been forced to take this stance because its business model is so reliant on peer-to-peer recommendations but the truth is, customers have been losing faith in the validity of online reviews for a while now – and more needs to happen from more of the major online players. Now, it looks like Amazon will have another day in court and is shining a light on the problems online businesses face when it comes to fraudsters.

In 2013, it emerged that Samsung in Taiwan had allegedly been paying people to criticise its competitor HTC online. The negative publicity this scandal generated alone caused the company to cease all marketing activities that involved the posting of anonymous comments.

Last year, when TripAdvisor was found to have fraudulent reviews, a social media campaign was started with the hashtag #NoReceiptNoReview – testament to the demand for authenticity in a digital world. And just two months ago, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into Total SEO after it emerged that the company had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses between 2014 and 2015.

This ongoing investigation, together with Amazon playing catch-up, will hopefully have some positive impact on waking brands up to the importance of verifying user-generated content.

There will always be an online minority who try and cheat the system, so perhaps government regulation of the world of online reviews is the only long-term solution. Of course, closed systems (like ours at Reevoo) prevent fakes from even getting through the door. We consulted on the CMA’s investigation and were encouraged by their desire to understand the issue.

In order to resist legislative intervention, brands must not only take greater care to develop genuine consumer trust through authenticity, but they also need to be more thorough in weeding out the fake reviews and reviewers.

Fraudulent reviewing is more likely to occur over multiple sites across a retailer or service provider’s network so there’s a necessity for a more joined-up approach to online monitoring.

Plus, understanding how to properly deal with negative reviews in the first place would eliminate any temptation to misguidedly pay someone to generate false positives.

In a world where consumer brand trust is already at an all-time low, it’s overdue for companies to fight-back against the scammers and fakers. If you rely on user-generated recommendations and reviews to drive your business forward, you need to take up arms today.

Edwin Bos is chief innovation officer at Reevoo

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