On the internet, the ability to make a business out of anything is well proven. Wherever there is a demand somebody will be looking to supply to meet it, whatever the ethics of that may be.
Take review sites for example. More and more people are basing their purchases or investments into services upon the thoughts of others who have apparently already tried them. Personally, I rarely make a purchase of more than £30 in value without checking out reviews somewhere online and yes, I can be swayed by what I read.
Travel site TripAdvisor boasts over 25 million users per month, the majority looking to check out hotels and resorts before they book, so I am not alone in my opinion.
Which is why some less scrupulous companies have highlighted the value of good reviews and are abusing the system. Certainly, some review sites have to be taken with a pinch of salt, with many paying reviewers up to 50p per review they write, in an attempt to fill their site with content on the cheap.
Yet, some companies are now taking that further and recruiting review-writers onto their payroll and funding them to visit review sites and leave praise-ridden comments.
The trend is called ‘astroturfing’ a witty comment on the fact that the operation fakes grass-roots support. Yet it is illegal. The problem is nobody appears to have yet been brought to book for it. Sites seeking freelancers frequently feature ads for review writers clearly being recruited by brands, but no action ever appears to have been taken to clamp down on it.
The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations clearly prohibits the practice, setting out that pretending to be a consumer and giving yourself a positive review is ‘an unfair commercial practice’. That is a criminal offence subject to an unlimited fine and up to 2 years in prison, so certainly not worth the risk.
Yet, besides the law, besides the ethics, there is something extremely odd about companies seeking to falsely enhance their reputation by fake reviews when the biggest thing they risk in so doing, is their reputation itself.
As we all know a businesses reputation can make or break its success particularly in difficult financial times. If a brand found to be using fake reviews was made public, imagine the damage to customer confidence, business trust and the reputation of the company. Yet, where there is a quick-win to be had with little sign of any risk of punishment, expect firms to run the gauntlet.
Do you take notice of review sites? Have you ever been tempted to place a fake review?