When it comes to managing their online reputations, businesses face numerous challenges.

Thanks to the popularity of online reviews and social platforms that can give average consumers a large voice, negative online buzz can cause real damage to a company and its brand.

And in the case of small businesses, negative online buzz can literally kill.

But what happens when negative buzz is the result of a lie?

Unfortunately, companies large and small are finding that fighting back against lies online is tough work.

Fake reviews of the sinister kind

Fake online reviews designed to bolster a business have received their fair share of attention.

Earlier this year, one reporter demonstrated how, with a modest budget, it's possible to create a good online reputation for a business that doesn't exist.

But the services that make this possible are also being employed by unsavory companies to harm their competitors.

One local Boston business, Long's Jewelers, saw its Facebook rating fall from 4.8 stars to 2.3 stars after being hit by 200 fake reviews that it believed were paid for by a competitor.

Facebook was initially unresponsive, but a public plea by Long's Jewelers that went viral finally resulted in Facebook removing the fake reviews.

With a little bit of detective work, Lynelle Schmidt, an employee of Long's Jewelers, tracked down the individual who wrote the fake reviews on Fiverr.com, the same freelancer service that was used by the aforementioned reporter to build an online reputation for a fake business.

Untruthful claims

Local businesses like Long's Jewelers aren't the only ones vulnerable to negative buzz caused by untruths.

In the past week retail giant Walmart found itself dealing with a viral video that it says was simply fiction.

The video, in which a woman discusses a customer service incident she claims occurred at a Walmart in Pueblo, Colorado, was posted to YouTube and racked up 25m views before it was made private.

Walmart says it reviewed surveillance video and spoke to the employee in question, and that the incident described in the woman's YouTube video was a complete fabrication.

While the poster is sticking to her story, the matter highlights the fact that a single customer can force a billion-dollar company into the media spotlight, even if his or her statements are dubious.

What can companies do?

The old adage, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," has never been more true.

And unfortunately, companies have limited options for dealing with the online lies that can affect their businesses.

Many take the approach Walmart took: respond to, and dispute, reviews and claims that aren't truthful.

While this doesn't stop lies from spreading in the first place, such an approach can be effective in quashing negative buzz and demonstrating that a business is responsive.

Where a third-party service like Facebook is involved, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to get justice, but as the Long's Jewelers experience demonstrates, a squeaky wheel will usually get grease.

There are also more aggressive tactics aggrieved companies can turn to.

Amazon itself recently filed a lawsuit against individuals who it alleges offered to write fake reviews on Fiverr.com for $5 a piece, and earlier this year filed a suit against a service called buyamazonreviews.com.

But lawsuits over untruthful reviews and online statements can be tricky.

What a business knows isn't true might not be patently false to the public, and in many cases, there's a fine line between a negative review and an untruthful review.

When customers and businesses clash, perspective often means that the truth lies somewhere in between both versions of the story.

While companies can prevail in defamation lawsuits, the costs are high, the risk of blow back is high, and thanks to businesses that have taken draconian steps to unfairly limit negative reviews, lawmakers in the United States are seeking to make it much more difficult for companies to sue their customers over online postings.

The good news for companies is that not all negative reviews prove to be harmful and the best practices for responding to negative reviews that can be applied even when those reviews make claims that aren't true.

Coupled with a concerted effort to encourage more positive reviews, it's possible for companies to ensure that the lies spread about them online are shot down almost as quickly as they spread and, in some cases, to turn lemons into lemonade.

Patricio Robles

Published 10 December, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2616 more posts from this author

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Comments (5)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

PopeHat and Techdirt regularly post about disputes between companies and the customers who review them (unfairly or otherwise). See links for 2 examples. The best advice to companies, as on so many issues, is to suck it up and do NOT go to law unless you really, really, really have no alternative. It will be expensive, waste management time, and maybe generate bad publicity.

https://popehat.com/2013/06/25/criticize-your-dentist-thats-a-jailin/
https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140713/17151727870/court-fines-french-blogger-3400-her-negative-review-local-italian-restaurant-il-giardino.shtml

over 2 years ago

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Kayla M, Marketing Manager at SpyCameraCCTV

Really interesting how Long's Jewellers handled all those negative complaints.

When it comes to the odd negative review we try to see it as an opportunity to write a well thought out response in the same way our we would respond to an email complaint. As a company we are willing to admit where mistakes have been made (we're only human after all!) and then take steps to learn and improve so it doesn't happen again.

We hope that customers see us being proactive with reviews on Trustpilot/Facebook etc and this will turn a negative into a positive!

over 2 years ago

James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

Great article Patricio!

The threat of fake reviews is incredibly worrying - and can be very damaging to businesses. As you've mentioned, well-established platforms and sites such as Facebook and Amazon are struggling to authenticate such reviews.

A closed-feedback platform such as Feefo helps massively to ensure all reviews are genuine, because only customers that have made a purchase are invited to leave a review.

We'd be very interested if you'd like to do a follow up, or need a comment or quote from anyone at Feefo.

Thanks again for highlighting the threat of fake reviews. It's something I and Feefo are very passionate about eradicating.

James.

over 2 years ago

Jean-Marie CHAUVEL

Jean-Marie CHAUVEL, Director at Reputation Aegis

In order to avoid the issues described in your article, companies must have processes in place to: measure customer experience, give authentic customers a way to review the company, monitor online reviews daily on the top review sites, respond to all reviews: negative or positive...

Companies should also promote their good reputation everywhere including: their company website, on all social networks & offline. An enhanced customer feedback platform which includes review monitoring, like Reputation Aegis, is key to protect and maintain a company's reputation.

And, one last advice: always be amazing! Deliver, at all time, the best customer experience ever to every customers!

over 2 years ago

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Michael Shivili, CEO at iTrueReview

Great article! I was a restauranteur for over 20 years and increasingly dealt with fake and false reviews. It took me about three years, but I finally launched iTrueReview.biz which enables (restaurants & recently hotels) to capture guest experience ONLY while they are still on location. This method was designed so that fake reviewers or competitors can't just go on some random site and do their dirty work. If they wanted to do that, they'd have to visit the business itself.

over 2 years ago

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