If you were invited to leave an online review a decade after attending a concert, not only would it tax your memory, it would raise your suspicions.  

Even more so if you were asked to review a restaurant you had never been to and was later found to be a bin in a back street. These are real-life instances of the kind of disreputable tactics that have eroded confidence in online reviews.

The request to review a long-forgotten concert came from a ticket-resale website trying to counter negative headlines. But it ended up as a trigger to further unwelcome publicity when the ploy was exposed.

Online reviews are crucial but trust is undermined by unverified platforms

Even though the vast majority of consumers (82 percent) rely on reviews to some extent when making a purchase, whether online or in a store, nearly half (48 percent) believe it is hard to tell if reviews are truthful and objective 1.

Last year even Amazon felt compelled to investigate claims about its platform when independent sellers were alleged to have bribed their way to deleting negative reviews or to getting their banned accounts restored.

It is hardly surprising that public skepticism about online reviews continues, especially when unverified platforms allow the posting of reviews by pretty much anybody, irrespective of whether they have bought or experienced a product or service.

That can mean a series of posts from retailers, manufacturers, unscrupulous third-party review factories operating commercially or consumers offered a deal in exchange for positive feedback. Brands that knowingly engage in this behavior are treading a fine line. From a marketing perspective what could be worse than customers finding out that those glowing reviews about your products and services are a load of fakes?

What consumers want from reviews

Today’s consumers want something more than product, price, and uniqueness. They want a complete and satisfactory experience which includes access to real feedback from real customers. It becomes all the more pressing, then, for organizations to demonstrate they are taking every step possible to clamp down on fishy feedback and phony reviews.

It is not a trivial matter. Not only do reviews offer confidence and insight, but they also save consumers time whether they are buying coffee pods, cars or considering which realtor to use. Reviews can also be a real spur to business, enabling it to find out what customers want and where products and services can be improved.

What consumers need are reviews they know they can believe in – reviews from real customers who have genuinely bought the product or used the service. This is where invite-only reviews come in.

How to use reviews to build trust and transparency

Invitation-only platforms run by reputable third-party partners cut out the possibility of fraud by inviting customers to post feedback only after they have made a purchase. The invitation will only be sent once the purchase has been completed.  Such platforms ensure that good, bad and indifferent reviews are posted – there is no filtering out of negative feedback.

Apart from being dishonest, the systematic removal of critical reviews does not make commercial sense. Customers expect to see negative feedback and are increasingly able to use it very cannily in their assessment of products and services. The absence of criticism immediately sets alarm bells ringing and deters consumers from further engaging with a brand or organization. It certainly makes it far less likely they will buy anything.

Why the alternatives are not effective

The alternatives to invite-only platforms hardly pass the tests of verification and authenticity. How, for example, do human moderators check the bona fides of thousands of reviews? On the basis of their grammar? Even where “smart technology” is deployed, how can this detect phony reviewers? What exactly are the behavioral characteristics that these software programs claim they can pick up? It is never clear.

AI extracts full value from reviews – but only if they are real

Don’t get me wrong. Artificial intelligence (AI) has a major role to play and is transforming how businesses and consumers use reviews. AI applications extract valuable intelligence from thousands of reviews, saving time for consumers and giving businesses actionable insights about trends as they emerge. But rather than trying to use technology to establish authenticity, trust, and transparency, it is far more effective to bar non-customers from posting reviews and to be fearless about permitting negative content. The idea that algorithms can solve the problem of fake reviews is far-fetched.

Access to real online reviews is now very much part of the customer journey. This is exactly what consumers get from trusted, independent platforms that only publish reviews from real customers – not contributors approved by an algorithm.

As we still appear to be in the age of “fake news” organizations must take every step to be as transparent as possible about reviews, which now have such a crucial influence over customer decisions. Verified, invitation-only platforms are the most effective and trustworthy mechanism to build and maintain trust.

  1. 82% of US consumers always or sometimes read online reviews before buying a new product – Pew Research Center, December 2016

About the Author: Matt West is the CEO at Feefo, a disruptive global technology company empowering brands to make smarter decisions and improve consumer experiences by leveraging the full potential of real customer reviews.