Blog Post

Online Reviews and Anonymity


A couple weeks ago, a Virginia court ordered Yelp to identify previously anonymous reviewers. Though this might seem an unreasonable request of anonymous online users to be revealed for posting negative reviews, but there's suspicion that the reviews were not given by actual customers. If it turns out that the negative reviews were bought, and posted to harm the business, then there might be a case for Yelp to give up that information. Providing online reviews has an undeniable effect on buying behavior for consumers, so it will be interesting to see what comes of the lawsuit. Watch today's Daily Brown Bag to learn more about the case between Yelp and Virginia Courts, and how much reviews can have an impact on consumers' buying decisions.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Hello, and welcome to the Daily Brown Bag. Today, we’re going to be talking about online reviews. I’m Chad Hill, and I’m joined by Adam Stetzer.

Yeah, welcome to the Brown Bag. Online reviews are a topic that’s quite interesting here, especially with this breaking news, Chad. The breaking news today in online reviews today is that a court in Virginia ordered that Yelp must identify previously anonymous reviewers that wrote seven negative reviews about a carpet cleaning company. While that may seem trite, it’s actually kind of a landmark case here. The carpet cleaning company believes that the reviews were not from actual customers, and of course they’re claiming that there was material harm to their business from these negative reviews on Yelp.

So, you’ll recall, Chad, that we were talking a while back, I think it was in September of 2013, about some action that the New York State Attorney General’s offices took and called “Operation Clean Sweep,” which targeted companies that were actually facilitating what has been termed “astroturfing,” this idea of posting fake positive reviews. I think we identified that there were a few firms that had been fined for doing this, and it was recognized as not an okay thing to do, and the reason the New York Attorney General’s office took that action is that they said, “You know, consumers are increasingly using reviews for purchasing decisions.”

They were going after fake positive reviews, but here we see negative reviews causing harm, and we see that the veil of anonymity that I think previously had been thought of as pretty strong on the internet is gone, as here in Virginia, the court is ordering them to identify themselves. So, here’s a few more stats to get into this conversation, because I think this is a really fascinating topic, Chad. I think we’ll be hearing more about this.

  • According to Bright Local, about 80% of consumers trust online reviews of local businesses as much as recommendations from someone they know, and that’s pretty startling.
  • They read reviews more often as part of their purchasing decisions, and 67% of consumers read six or less reviews before making a decision about a local business.
  • So, a few positive or negative reviews, if they’re only reading six, can really sway them.
  • Seventy-three percent say that positive reviews make them trust the local business more.
  • According to E-Marketer, about 70% of consumers compare prices and read reviews before visiting a store in person. So this is pretty high penetration. You can see why this is big business.
  • Now the startling stat here is that there are some estimates that fraudulent reviews have now crept up as high as 30%.

So clearly, reviews are increasing in importance both for consumers on the purchasing decision side and businesses trying to manage their reputations. So, I think the discussion here, Chad, is whether consumers should be less anonymous when they leave reviews, and whether businesses should have the right to know who they are and make this more of a level playing field.

Businesses have a love/hate relationship with Yelp. It’s been a great place for businesses that are doing well. Of course, it’s a great place for people to highlight all the positive things that people say, but I think a lot of businesses wish they could sweep all those negative reviews under the rug. Part of these services is that they don’t allow you to delete negative reviews. Everything that is said is right there. Now, Yelp is going to appeal this, because they say that they want to protect the free speech of their users, and revealing identities of people making comments is something they want to stay as far away from as possible, and rightfully so.

But, many of their competitors, like YouTube and Google Local Plus, have been moving more toward requiring that you use a more authenticated user, so a Twitter account or a Google log-in that can tie you a little closer to a name and a face. Of course you can get around some of those rules, but more and more people are trying to make those reviews as authoritative and authentic as possible. So, it’s an interesting place to be, and we’ll have to see where it goes, Adam.

Yeah, and I think a lot of small businesses are thinking, “Wow, this is changing! I don’t really know how it’s going to shake out.” I think you’re right. I think there’s love/hate – they really love those positive reviews, but they really get angry about those negative reviews and often feel helpless. Are there any tips we can offer these guys on what the small business should do, given the shifting landscape around anonymous reviews on sites like Yelp?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the main things is to try to encourage your customers to leave reviews, because it’s almost impossible when running a business to not have a customer here or there that’s unhappy with your service or your place of business. So, the most important thing is to try to get the people who like your business to write positive reviews so that the good outweighs the bad, and there are right ways and wrong ways to do that.

The best way is to simply ask for reviews. Don’t get into things where you reward people and give them money, because a lot of people say that it’s not the right way to go, and it probably breaks some Terms of Services her or there.

The other one is to always stay on top of your reviews. If you do get a negative response, one of the things you want to do is make sure you respond to it quickly and try to address that customer’s feedback. Pull them back to a one-on-one discussion so that they aren’t airing all of your dirty laundry or their dirty laundry online. Address that feedback and try to take it offline, then go back and try to post that the issue was resolved.

Of course, that requires being present on social media, so make sure you have as many accounts claimed as possible on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and others. The one thing to remember is that you can’t delete negative reviews. You can only respond to them, so the key things there are to be on top of it and try to find as many positive reviews as possible through asking your customers to leave feedback.

Interesting! So, regardless of how this court case in Virginia really plays out when Yelp appeals the requirement to appeal anonymous sources, I think what’s interesting, Chad, is that you have no choice as a small business but to embrace what’s going on. So, if there are going to be reviews out there, and the courts are going to be years settling this, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. You need to engage it and recognize that reputation management starts with engagement and encouraging your customers to get out there. Make sure the positive is heard as well as the negative. The second point you made is really important as well, Chad, which is that a lot of negative reviews can be overcome with excellent customer service. I would be very interested to see statistics.

Somebody must be studying this. If I saw a negative review that was sort of naked, how do I feel about that small business? If I saw a negative review, but I saw an immediate response that seemed rational and professional, does that soften, if not completely eradicate it, or even possibly turn my opinion positive? We all know there are some consumers who will just never be happy, so maybe you can fight this with excellent customer service. Those are our thoughts for the Brown Bag today on this court case about Yelp anonymous reviews. We would love to hear your thoughts! Please drop a comment, and if you like the Brown Bag, please subscribe to our YouTube channel. We’ll see you here tomorrow!

Comments (3)

  • Reply

    I often shop online for higher tag items by reading reviews. I narrow the items I am interested in by the manufacture reviews and varied store reviews. But take them with a grain of salt. i will never base my opinion on something based upon reviews on one site. With small businesses I don't know how reliable I would consider negative reviews, more of a see for yourself.

    02/11/14 at 12:15 PM
  • Reply

    I often shop online for higher tag items by reading reviews. I narrow the items I am interested in by the manufacture reviews and varied store reviews. But take them with a grain of salt. i will never base my opinion on something based upon reviews on one site. With small businesses I don't know how reliable I would consider negative reviews, more of a see for yourself.

    02/11/14 at 12:28 PM
  • Nate Reply

    Between social media and local listing sites, I could definitely see this being a growing issue for small businesses. reviews play a very critical role in the buying process of many industries.

    02/17/14 at 01:44 PM

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