Authentic or fake? Demystifying the world of online reviews

According to the Competition & Markets Authority, £23 billion of UK consumer spending per year is being influenced by online customer reviews which presents a huge opportunity for retailers.

Consumers shopping online are reluctant to buy from online shops they do not know. The opinions and experience of fellow shoppers is therefore critical to informing their purchase activity and often proves to be more valuable than any self-marketing that the shop can do.

How influential are online reviews for consumer purchasing behaviour?

In the real world of bricks and mortar, we can see if a shop is busy, or if people are lining up outside the door of a restaurant. We look for these indicators to guide our choices, to provide the social proof we crave to validate our decisions. However, in cyberspace, with the behaviour of other people not directly visible, we rely on other indicators – most commonly, customer reviews, in fact 88 per cent of customers say that online reviews influenced their buying decisions (Dimensional Research, 2013).

What can be done by retailers to ensure online reviews are genuine?

By working with third parties who specialise in trust building measures, organisations can better understand the process for handling feedback and ensuring it doesn’t negatively impact the brand. Using tools like review scanners means retailers can detect abnormalities in feedback which can then be flagged to review moderators who will manually approve text before publishing.

Customer generated content is a valuable asset to a retailer if managed correctly. Inevitably, negative comments will crop up now and then but these should not be disregarded or deleted. If retailers take the time to analyse them where the criticism is justified and improve their operations, it is actually a valuable opportunity to show consumers that the brand is listening and shows how important customer feedback is in improving service.

What problems can fake reviews cause if retailers don’t take action to detect them?

Given the faith consumers have in online reviews, negative feedback is certain to deter them from purchasing and could even encourage further word-of-mouth complaints to to other consumers. Much in the same way, if feedback is ever overly positive it could make the customer suspicious of the brand and doubt the validity of the site.
Consequently, retailers must be vigilant in spotting sensationalised or overly positive reviews or risk existing and potential customers taking their wallet elsewhere.

What can consumers look for to determine trustworthiness of reviews?

A number of red flags can help consumers determine the authenticity of an online review. Regular customers rarely write very detailed comments, so if there’s a prevalence of reviews of particularly descriptive or positive reviews that could raise suspicions.

Recognisable patterns are also a warning sign. Genuine customer ratings are entered continuously, and not in batches in response to a critical customer review. They are neither particularly elaborate nor nondescript ('very good', 'very nice', etc.). They are formulated based on the individual customer, and are not written in the same style by the same authors, or by a so-called automatic content spinner.

If the credibility of a review is questionable it is often useful to review the profile of the customer giving feedback. If they have left a large number of similar reviews in a short space of time, chances are the reviews are not genuine.

How can companies use online reviews to gain and boost customer trust?

By managing and responding to reviews on a consistent basis, retailers can ensure their services are regularly adapted and improved and that customers feel nurtured and valued.

By deploying a customer review system, retailers can promote direct interaction with customers by allowing them to give feedback and then monitoring reviews so that they can address any complaints accordingly. This will help to build a relationship and make improvements when things have not gone according to plan or simply to form a profile of how consumers like to shop and what their preferences are.

Displaying feedback via a customer review system can also boost consumer trust when new visitors review a retailers’ website. It also helps existing customers to recognise that the brand is open and transparent about its operations and is taking steps to make continuous improvements to its online store and service.

How can online retailers create strong, trusted communities around a brand using ‘closed platform’ review sites, social media, and customer service?

Retailers need to embrace all feedback regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Negative experiences offer an opportunity for retailers to proactively reach out to customers and use methods to rectify the problems they have faced. While positive reviews help them to benchmark progress and establish alternative areas on which to focus their business.

To avoid difficulties around false reviews, verification methods are essential to ensure that only existing, genuine customers can leave feedback. Closed review platforms make this a possibility, ensuring that customers are verified before a review can be left. In addition, by removing an element of anonymity in reviews and connecting reviewer profiles to social profiles, this adds a layer of authentication and deters many people from posting fake comments.

Retailers who deploy closed review platforms also remove the likelihood that customers will bad mouth them on social channels like Twitter and Facebook, which can quickly spread through a user’s followers and tarnish the brand.

Having an awareness of what is being said about the brand in social posting is still important and means that, if necessary, feedback can be responded to in real-time – adding another dynamic element to customer service support, which is sometimes lost with online retailing.

Dominique Ziegelmayer, Trusted Shops expert for Customer Reviews

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