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Review sites are facing the challenges of anyone relying on user-generated content: convincing brands of its authenticity and value. Could technology provide the answers they need?

quick facts

  • Review sites are back in the news following Google’s deal with Bazaarvoice to include customer feedback in Google search results
  • Review sites with a location element, such as Rummble, are part of a new breed
  • Sites such as Yelp incorporate automated filters to weed out fake and spam reviews
  • The likes of Qype and Tipped are giving their communities additional tools to enrich and refine reviews
  • Some sites are taking steps to improve their reviews, even by moving away from user-generated content completely

Review sites have come under scrutiny in the past, particularly around issues of trust and authenticity. But as people become more sophisticated in their use of the internet, the significance of online reviews for brands and marketers remains high on the agenda.

The visibility of online reviews is set to increase following Google’s partnership with social commerce company Bazaarvoice, which will see customer reviews of the latter’s clients appear in Google product search results and AdWords ads (nma.co.uk 22 April 2010).

The proliferation of smartphones and the popularity of social networks are also prompting a new breed of review sites that are using specific functions to differentiate themselves. Mobile services such as Foursquare and Gowalla have inspired the use of location information on review sites like Rummble, while filtering technology is being harnessed to weed out reviews that are poorly rated or irrelevant to the needs of the user, as these can damage the authenticity of review sites.

Advertisers - on which most review sites rely for their revenue - don’t like the risk of being placed against untrustworthy and unpredictable content. So the leading review sites have been seeking ways to clean up their reviews to entice advertisers on board. One method they’ve adopted is automated filters, which remove suspicious reviews from businesses’ pages.

Yelp, founded in 2004, makes its revenue from sponsored search results and aims to make its content more relevant by suppressing suspect reviews. Communications manager Chantelle Karl says the site’s founders realised it had to provide both users and business owners with genuinely useful review content, so introduced an automated system to filter reviews. “It protects consumers and business owners from fake or malicious reviews,” she says. “It never deletes reviews but syndicates established users’ reviews from their pages to business pages. This automated process sometimes creates the impression that reviews are being deleted and re-added over time; what’s actually happening is users are becoming more or less established over time.”

Other sites are relying on their communities to flag which reviews are more trustworthy and relevant. Building up active communities has been an important aspect for review sites for some time, as it helps with search optimisation and drives traffic. But the likes of Qype and Tipped are also encouraging their community to act as filters of relevant and trusted reviews. Tipped ranks reviews by how other people in the community have rated them. The more often a person’s review is ’tipped’, the more prominence they’re awarded on the site.

Inviting views

Qype CEO Stephen Taylor says it created features to motivate its users to post more, as well as encouraging the community to engage with each other offline by hosting local events. “There are two elements we believe are essential to a strong local review capability,” he says. “First is multiple feedback loops for those who write reviews, such as ’like’ buttons and the ability to add comments. This encourages the community to write more and of a higher quality, and produces great metadata to ensure we showcase the best content. But it’s not just a matter of large numbers and accurate targeting. The second element is opening up forms of interaction that drive revenue. We do this both online, providing the channel of communication between the customer and the business, and offline, organising events where users can meet each other as well as the business owners. That’s a unique proposition for an online business.”

Another way review sites are fusing offline and online to build community is through mobile, enabling users to post location-based reviews and comments. Sites such as Foursquare and Gowalla, which are primarily social networks, have caught the attention of brands seeking to reward people’s loyalty with offers. One site applying the same technology to review content is Rummble, which allows users to rate and review any place as they visit it.

Conversely, sites such as startup Spoonfed are opting to steer clear of user-generated content entirely and instead feature content from a select group of reviewers. It has a group of critics charged with finding out what’s happening in London and writing previews and reviews. The site does have a community section but this is geared towards helping users set up events calendars and organise things to do with their friends.

Henry Erskine Crum, co-founder of Spoonfed Media, says, “When it comes to the reviews sector, the difference between us and the others is that we have original content. All the reviews are from an editorial team, not user generated, which does present us with the challenge of making the production of the content more effective. The focus is events rather than venues, which means content has to be written in advance and it has only a finite amount of time for which it’s relevant to readers.”

Brand value

In aiming to be more trustworthy, review sites are also innovating in terms of how they can involve brands and drive revenue from a large volume of reviews, something Crum, says has become a problem for many sites. “There’s definitely a business model for advertising on review sites, but if you look at the rates over the past few years it’s clear there’s more inventory than advertisers,” he says. “Unless you have a direct value proposition, you won’t win because there’s so much supply. The services and content providers that win will be the ones with niche propositions and attractive audiences.”

Qype’s Taylor is more optimistic about the opportunities for brands, but says extra value needs to be added, either in terms of targeting or sponsorship. “The opportunity for brands is significant. They’ve never before had an outlet that’s conducive to brand advertising but able to reach highly targeted local audiences. In addition, the flexible local categorisation we have and the real-world meets open all sorts of sponsorship opportunities.”

Yelp focuses on targeting to create a more valuable proposition to advertisers, particularly for local businesses, using content from its community. But as Spoonfed’s Crum points out, creating a balance between community and advertising can be a problem. “Review sites are all about natural search and community,” he says. “So if you’ve built up a strong community but then put a big ad and premium listings in front of them, you could anger them. There’s a delicate balance of keeping a grassroots feel and answering the site’s corporate needs.”

He says this is why Spoonfed is looking at alternative means of generating revenue, through additional services to brands, rather than relying solely on ad revenue. The company is launching a software service called Bullseye, currently in beta to a select number of clients. For a fee, events organisers can this to manage their online promotion for events, including listings, sending email, mobile and social media messages, and managing consumer data. Crum says it enables Spoonfed to only run advertising that’s targeted to its audience, rather than relying on networks or display ads.

Review sites have grown up from their first incarnation by either taking steps to improve content or moving away from user-generated reviews, creating tools that allow advertisers to target audiences better or supplementing their business models with additional services. The sector has also become a more varied space as each site has tried to carve out its niche. This makes them a safer option for advertisers, but what brands will now need to consider is which type of review site will stand the test of time.

There will be a place for both user-generated and editorialised reviews, as online audiences still have an appetite for both. But the proliferation of smartphones and the increasing popularity of location-based services will be a key growth area for the foreseeable future.

Case study: Courvoisier courts young cocktail drinkers

Alcohol brand Courvoisier launched a campaign last year for its Exclusif brand, targeting a young urban audience with the message that the cognac was a spirit that could be used in cocktails and centring on an event in London. The brand used Spoonfed to run advertorials, sponsored content and display ads across the site, as well as leveraging Spoonfed’s social networking audiences to promote the London event.

According to Nikki Cumming, brand manager at Courvoisier, “We welcomed an official taste consultant, Alex James, to the team. Focus PR then worked closely with Spoonfed to leverage this extra media hook and ensure the campaign received coverage.

“The editorial coverage reached 144.6m [combined] of our target consumers over a month and the project enabled us to sample over 3,000 Courvoisier Exclusif cocktails,” she says.

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Published 1 July, 2010 by NMA Staff

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