In this age of user-generated reviews — where one click can deliver dozens of critiques — we need not only be wary of what we’re buying, but of what’s being said about it and by whom
“The décor reminded me more of my mother-in-law’s nursing home as frankly, I have stayed in more up-to-date Travel Lodges.”
— Excerpt from a review by a hotel guest on TripAdvisor
“What a wonderfully written review! I strongly recommend that you take up writing fiction for a living.”
— Excerpt from the hotel manager’s response to the review
User-generated reviews have been alternately hailed as giving voice to consumers and denounced as unreliable, open to fakery and other abuse.
For consumers, they can be a valuable tool, tapping in to the collective opinions of others on everything from the reliability of a particular toaster to the quality of food at a restaurant to the welcome they can expect at a resort.
For businesses, they can be an important barometer of customer relations and provide a potential boost in custom. But unfavourable reviews can cost them business, plus the anxiety of coping with critics who can shelter, at least initially, behind the Internet’s cloak of anonymity.
Some businesses — such as the United Kingdom’s Saint Martin’s on the Isle Hotel — appear to take the “best defence is a good offence” approach to online reviews, if the above excerpts from TripAdvisor are any indication, reacting with stinging rebukes of their own when a guest posts an unfavourable review.
One Nova Scotia eco-retreat has taken the fight against user-generated reviews a step further, insisting guests sign an agreement promising they won’t post about their experiences at the lodge on any online sites without written permission.
Most recently, a Florida food company sued Yelp for defamation, claiming the site showed negative reviews ahead of positive ones.
And in the United Kingdom, the Advertising Standards Agency has launched an investigation into TripAdvisor following a complaint by the online reputation-management company KwikChex, which represents 2,000 hotels, alleging that many of the reviews are fake or simply unreliable.
Online reviews may give consumers the power to become published critics, but others maintain that power is being abused, with stories of bogus reviews and manipulated rankings raising questions about the reliability of user-generated critiques.
Reviews, for a price
To write a review, all you need is an account with Google Places, Yelp or one of the many other sites that host such critiques. While such reviews may appear legitimate, some are bought and paid for: The going rate seems to be about $5.
“We are looking for people who already have accounts or would create an account on one or more of these Review sites: Google Places, Yahoo Local, Yelp, Insiderpages or CitySearch so that you can write reviews for businesses for us,” reads one Craigslist ad.
“Many businesses and Marketing Agencies contact us that want positive reviews for their business and clients.” Another ad offers $5 each for 100 reviews, promising they “can be done easily in one day.”
Bogus reviews are such an issue that Cornell researchers developed an algorithmic method to detect fake online hotel reviews, which successfully identified fakes 90 per cent of the time in a database of 400 genuine and 400 planted reviews.
The “opinion spam” can range from “annoying self-promotion of an unrelated website or blog to deliberate review fraud,” the researchers said. And depending on the product being reviewed, up to 30 per cent of reviews might be fake, estimates a researcher from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Fake reviews may not just extol a product’s virtues; they could also be negative, posted by a rival business to hurt its competition.
In one case of faked reviews in 2009, Belkin — maker of networking and computer-related products — issued a letter of apology after it was discovered that one of its employees was paying people to post positive reviews of Belkin products.
But despite the pitfalls and the controversy surrounding them, online reviews — like the genie that won’t be stuffed back in the bottle — are here to stay.
Consumers aren’t about to start keeping their opinions to themselves now that they have found a global audience.
That is not a bad thing.
The sheer volume of reviews may function as a bit of a filter for the bogus ones. Reading one review may give a skewed perspective, but looking at a number of reviews can balance out biases.
“I trust them in aggregate,” said Darren Barefoot, co-founder of Vancouver’s Capulet Communications and co-author of Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook. “No one is particularly reliable.”
Just as asking one friend’s opinion of a movie isn’t as helpful as getting that of 10 friends, he said, online reviews are most useful when considered collectively. And Barefoot said he tends to look at star ratings such as those on Amazon.com.
A kind of rate-the-reviewer system, some sites let readers vote on whether they find a review helpful, and many will deliver a star rating based on the average rankings of all the posted reviews on the particular item or service.
Difficult as it can be for businesses to take the criticism levelled against them online — often from anonymous posters — Barefoot advises them not to ignore it.
“Leaving something alone is almost always a bad idea,” he said. “Ignoring comments, putting your head in the sand is not going to make the critics go away. You have to engage with critics and you have to engage with the people who love your organization.”
In seminars and workshops for businesses, Barefoot uses the example of Saint Martin’s on the Isle Hotel as an illustration of how not to respond to unfavourable online reviews.
“The first piece of advice we give on that is to treat the person like they are standing in front of you,” he said.
Not all businesses take that advice. Indeed, some are taking a more aggressive response to online critics, in some cases suing for defamation.
The Federal Communications Decency Act in the U.S., however, provides a degree of protection for user-generated review sites, giving them immunity from liability for content posted by the site’s users.
While defamation laws are different in Canada, practically speaking it can be costly and time-consuming for businesses here to seek redress for what they may consider defamatory reviews.
Vancouver lawyer David Wotherspoon — a partner in Fasken Martineau whose practice focuses on intellectual property, technology and defamation — said if someone is publishing words that are defamatory, it is almost impossible to get a preliminary injunction to stop that because of the high value courts place on freedom of speech.
The very nature of the Internet almost guarantees the offending words will spread widely and there is the so-called Streisand Effect.
That term refers to how attempts to stifle online publications can sometimes backfire. It dates back to 2003, when entertainer Barbra Streisand attempted to have images of her Malibu home removed from the Internet, a move that only focused attention on them and led to a huge increase in online viewing.
Even in cases where a plaintiff gets a favourable ruling, if the defendant is based in a different country, enforcing an order for damages can be an onerous undertaking. With online user-generated reviews it may be more effective to simply write a letter asking that the offending post be removed, according to Wotherspoon.
“Say I post something you don’t like [on a review site such as Yelp],” he said. “The easy solution for Yelp is they just pull it off. I can complain and receive a solution through one letter that I would likely never get in the courts.”
Companies that host user-generated reviews, meanwhile, are protected by the defence of innocent dissemination.
“Because they don’t in fact have knowledge of the content that is posted, at least initially, they are not going to be held liable,” said Wotherspoon.
As soon as the company is put on notice about defamatory content, however, it is no longer covered by innocent dissemination.
Wotherspoon said he thinks legitimate organizations such as Yelp act responsibly. “That may be why I am not seeing a lot of disputes over the abuse of user-generated reviews,” he said.
Yelp, which has been the subject of defamation suits in the U.S., changed some of its practices last year after class-action lawsuits were brought against it. One change was a provision that now allows businesses to see reviews that have been filtered out by the site’s algorithmic process, which seeks to weed out fake reviews.
“We were pretty quick to implement the review filter,” said Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose. “Basically it is looking for patterns of abuse or suspicious behaviour. I am the first to say the filter is not perfect. From time to time it will suppress the review of a legitimate customer.”
Ichinose said 85 per cent of the reviews on Yelp give a three-star or higher rating. A three-star rating ranks the business as “A-OK.”
David Doyle’s company has experienced the good and bad of user-generated reviews. Doyle, vice-president of sales at the Apple specialty dealer Simply.ca, said the important thing for businesses is to track and respond to comments, whether they’re positive or negative.
In one recent incident, a customer who used the company’s service department wrote what Doyle described as “a terrible Yelp about us.” When Doyle investigated, he discovered the customer’s phone number had been written down wrong — which meant Simply hadn’t been able to contact him regarding an item left for servicing.
The Yelp reviewer withdrew the unfavourable post when the confusion over the phone number came to light.
Doyle said Yelp has so far filtered out two reviews posted about Simply, one a four-star review and another a critical review.
“I think they are making an effort to make it a more credible experience for people,” he said. “At the same time, they’ll take out the good ones with the bad ones.”
Still, other companies are less willing to join the discussion, upset not just by negative reviews but by consumers who use such tools as negotiating devices, threatening to post bad reviews unless the business acquiesces to their demands.
Nova Scotia’s Trout Point Lodge has come under criticism for its policy forbidding guests from posting anything online about the lodge or their experiences there.
But co-owner Vaughan Perret said since the policy was instituted last May, only one guest has refused to sign the legal agreement, which is a condition of staying at the hotel.
The lodge gets an average four-and-a-half star rating out of five from the 56 reviews on TripAdvisor, but a prominent advisory on the page now warns: “TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that this hotel requires guests to transfer their intellectual-property rights for any online publications or reviews related to their experiences as a guest to the hotel, which will discourage publicly available online feedback. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.”
Perret said the lodge relies primarily on word-of-mouth when it comes to recommendations.
“We have had problems with TripAdvisor,” he said. “Many innkeepers have had problems with TripAdvisor.”
Perret said the anonymity of the Internet can make it “a really uncivil place.” That, he said, plus the lodge’s commitment to ensuring privacy for its guests, prompted the policy regarding online postings.
“I really haven’t had any choice but to take the road I’ve taken,” he said.
Perret said that on at least three occasions guests have threatened to post bad reviews unless the lodge agreed to their demands for discounts.
“The blackmail thing has come up, for sure,” he said.
Although user-generated reviews may be more common than ever, the concerns being raised are almost as old as the Internet.
Robert Slade, a data communications and security specialist who follows the issue of online reviews, had his first experience with suspect reviews back in the 1990s. His first book on anti-virus technology had just been released and virus writers, he said, launched a determined attack through Amazon.
“They wanted to do as much damage to my book as possible,” he said.
Slade doesn’t put much store in user-generated reviews, speaking instead of a new type of caveat emptor: buyer beware, not only of what you’re thinking about buying but of what’s being written about it.
“I seldom look at users’ comments,” he said. “I may look at a few, but I certainly hesitate to make a decision on that basis. I’ve found the quality of comments really is not worth looking at. There is an awful lot of ‘I liked this, I didn’t like that, this is the best thing in the world, this is the worst in the world.’ ”