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Faking It - Why Honest Reviews Are Essential In The 'Post-Truth' Age

12/05/2017 13:42

Let's say you are invited to leave an online review ten years after a concert. It would surprise most of us as well as taxing our powers of recall.

Or perhaps you are asked to leave a review for a restaurant you have never been to and which in fact turns out to be a wheelie bin in a back street.

These are real-life examples of the kind of antics that have chipped away at confidence in online reviews, even though the vast majority of us still rely on them when we make a purchase, whether online or in a store[1]. The invitation to leave a concert review allegedly came from a ticket-resale website trying to counter negative headlines about its business practices, but ended up prompting further adverse publicity when the prehistoric-concert-review ploy was revealed in the media.

It is very easy, when these stories gain prominence, for skepticism about online reviews to grow, which makes it all the more important that we tackle the whole issue of fake or engineered reviews.

It is not a trivial matter. Not only are reviews incredibly useful in offering us confidence and guidance, they can save us time in reaching a decision, whatever we are buying - whether it is light bulbs, holidays, cars or houses. Reviews can also be a real spur to a business, kicking it up the backside and enabling it to find out what we customers want and where things are going wrong.

The problem with this industry is that you or I can go online and buy ourselves some off-the-shelf reviews that make our new furniture store or roofing business look superficially wonderful. Only last year, the House of Lords European Union Committee issued a warning to companies for misleading consumers with fake reviews and bogus discounts.

What we need as consumers, are reviews we can believe in - that have gone through some process of authentication. Because not only do we use them to help us make the right choices[2], the evidence is that if we trust reviews we can be pretty canny about how to use them.

Reviews need to be informative. A one-star review doesn't paint the full picture, and someone else's negative may in fact be another's positive. For example, when looking at hotel reviews, while the absence of children's play facilities is a gripe for a number of parents, it may be a positive indicator for an amorous couple looking for a quiet weekend away.

We also like leaving reviews. In fact, the bigger the purchase, or the more related to personal taste it is, the more likely we are to leave a short assessment, good or bad. It's clear that investing our hard-earned cash in a product or service entails a degree of emotional commitment that often requires an outlet. Just look at all the long chains of reviews that are left for cars and holidays.

All businesses need to wake up to the fact that in the age of social media, going online to share an experience is second nature to a growing number of us. If we cannot leave reviews on the company's website nowadays, we will simply head straight for Facebook or Twitter where we can be heard.

And there is no need for businesses to fear negativity - they can learn from it. For example, lousy star-ratings have often turned out to be about the failures of the delivery company and not the product. Using reviews to sort out these problems quickly means a business can improve its performance immediately without the risk of suddenly being roasted in a fire-pit of bad reviews on social media.

What's more, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) now make it possible to extract what is valuable to either the business or individual consumers from thousands of reviews they would never otherwise have time to comb through. If you are primarily interested in a new phone's battery life, the AI will extract succinctly what has been said on the topic of battery life from thousands of reviews.

While I appreciate we are in the age of "fake news" and "post-truth" opinions, it's time for falsified or filtered reviews to be banished. Once they are, we won't just have more confidence in what and who we buy from, businesses will also learn more about how to improve their products and services and generate more sales. Ultimately, they can uncover what we truly think as consumers, rather than just relying on how many stars they receive.

1. 82% of US consumers always or sometimes read online reviews before buying a new product - Pew Research Center, December 2016; 66% of UK consumers most likely to read online reviews after finding out price when considering a purchase - Feefo survey of 2,000 consumers, Feb 2017
2. 74% of UK shoppers say reviews usually influence them to some extent - Feefo research, Feb 2017

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