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What’s the verdict on review platforms?


By Alice Wilkinson

Earlier this month, review platform Trustpilot and a well-known housebuilder were criticised for “unfairly” removing negative reviews, which had been left by residents facing huge bills for cladding repair costs.

The incident is yet another in a long line of recent examples that demonstrate the increasingly complex role of online review platforms.

Trustpilot positions itself as being “free and open to every company and consumer everywhere.” It states that “sharing your experiences helps others make better choices and companies up their game.”

But in practice online review platforms are easy to abuse. Fake or unfair reviews tell a one-sided story, and angry customers can use social media to band together, flooding review sites with comments that give other users a skewed picture of a business.

Equally, businesses can distort their ratings with fake reviews, which are often hard to distinguish from genuine comments. Review company, Which?, recently uncovered 10 websites selling fake reviews from £5 each on Amazon's Marketplace. Businesses could buy packages of between 50 and 1,000 fake reviews, left by any of more than 702,000 “product reviewers”.

This and similar recent discoveries have resulted in the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launching an investigation into fake and misleading reviews, examining whether online shops are doing enough to protect customers from being duped into buying shoddy products or services.

But even when review platforms or online shops put in place safeguards to protect businesses and consumers from fake or abusive reviews, these efforts can backfire. In the example given at the start of this article, the housebuilder managed to get negative reviews removed by following Trustpilot’s guidelines, flagging only the reviews it could not identify as being from recent customers. Yet this action, whilst in line with Trustpilot’s review guidelines, left a bitter taste in the mouths of the residents who felt their rights had been infringed.

Consumers must have the right to leave feedback and businesses should encourage these engagements, which can be incredibly valuable for improving product or service offerings. Indeed, smart businesses can even turn negative reviews into a positive, demonstrating to digital onlookers the speed and effectiveness of their customer service teams.

But online review platforms are not well regulated and are easy to manipulate. Too often, people turn to the internet to vent, using inflammatory language that may not fairly or truly represent their experience. Earlier this year, unsatisfied customer, Philip James Waymouth, left a negative Trustpilot review for a law firm, in which he called it "another scam solicitor". In an unprecedented move, the firm took legal action, stating that this comment was untrue and defamatory, and Waymouth was ordered to pay £25,000 in libel damages.

Interestingly, Trustpilot was quick to jump to Waymouth’s defence, stating: “We strongly oppose the use of legal action to silence consumers' freedom of speech. As a public, open, review platform we believe strongly in consumers having the ability to leave feedback - good or bad - about a business at any time, without interference.”

Increasingly we are seeing social media platforms get involved in issues surrounding free speech - Twitter’s decision to no-platform Donald Trump is just one example. Now it seems review platforms may be next to join in discussions, adding yet more complexity to the online review process.

Ultimately, consumers have a right to voice their experiences with businesses and brands, but it is no longer a simple exchange of feedback. Online reviews are powerful things: a study by SEO company, BrightLocal, found that, in 2020, 92% of people would not use a business after reading a negative review, whilst 94% would be more likely to use a business after reading a positive review. In 2019, those figures stood at 91% and 82% respectively, showing that online reviews – and review platforms – have increasing influence over consumer behaviours.

But, in a time when everyone with internet access is a critic, is it wise to give so much weight to online review platforms? In fact, the future of review platforms is already under question. With fake reviews earning the attention of the CMA, attitudes to review platforms are sure to change. Though increased regulation in this space should be encouraged, such changes will inevitably make leaving a review more complicated, taking the spontaneity out of the process. By adding legitimacy to online review platforms, we may well see their output become less meaningful.