The importance of online product reviews to retailers, manufacturers and consumers cannot be underestimated. They’ve become a prominent fixture on ecommerce websites and are used extensively by consumers to make purchasing decisions.

The key to their value: authenticity. Any manipulation of these reviews threatens the credibility of the reviews, and in the case of retailers and manufacturers, potentially the perception of their brands.

Belkin, which manufactures computer accessories and electronics equipment, has learned this the hard way. It has come under fire after it was discovered that one of its employees attempted to use Amazon’s crowdsourcing service, Mechanical Turk, to generate positive online reviews for its routers.

Arlen Parsa of The Daily Background broke the news after discovering the Mechanical Turk task posted by a a person named Mike Bayard. He used LinkedIn to confirm that Bayard was a Belkin employee.

Bayard’s posting requested that Mechanical Turk users:

  • Always give a 100% rating (as high as possible)
  • Write as if you own the product and are using it
  • Thank the website for making you such a great deal
  • Mark any other negative reviews as ‘not helpful’ once you post yours

In return for each online review, the fake reviewers would be paid 65 cents.

Of course, word of mouth cannot be generated in an artificial manner and major blogs picked up on this story. Before you knew it, a single Belkin employee had focused the tech blogosphere’s attention on his company. In the worst way possible of course.

Bayard’s abuse of Mechanical Turk in an attempt to leverage and game ‘social media‘ using fake online reviews was clearly more than the work of an overenthusiastic employee. It was dishonest and unethical. He should have known better.

Belkin has responded and not surprisingly, the company’s president, Mark Reynoso, has condemned the actions of what he clearly implied was a rogue employee:

“…it was with great surprise and dismay when we discovered that one of our
employees may have posted a number of queries on the Amazon Mechanical Turk
website inviting users to post positive reviews of Belkin products in exchange
for payment.”
He went on:“Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction. We regard our responsibility to our user community as sacred, and we are extremely sorry that this happened.”

Belkin has removed the request from Mechanical Turk and Reynoso claims that Belkin is attempting to have any fake online reviews that were posted removed. Nothing was said about the fate of Bayard but it’s likely that he is no longer working for Belkin.

The entire situation highlights two things:

  • Companies need to develop best practices for social media. While corporate social media is most commonly associated with services like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, companies should create policies around all forms of user-generated content. This includes online reviews and submissions to social news services like Digg and Yahoo Buzz.
  • Companies need to make these best practices clear to employees and affiliated marketing/advertising agencies. While there’s no question that Bayard should have used better judgment, a single employee’s actions can have a huge impact on a company’s brand and can create a PR nightmare in today’s online world. As such, companies need to make sure that their employees and any affiliated agencies that assist in a marketing capacity have very clear guidelines and boundaries when it comes to how they’re permitted to use social media.

Because what consumers are saying about you online can have such a huge impact today, it’s tempting to believe that there are social media ‘shortcuts‘ such as paying for positive reviews. But that isn’t the case and companies need to understand that there are very real risks created by such abuses.

Mitigating those risks starts by understanding that they exist, implementing best practices to prevent them and sharing those best practices with employees.