Customer reviews specialist Reevoo is lobbying for increased regulation around online reviews, despite the fact that it is a near-impossible task.

Measuring the validity of all online reviews is difficult and I can’t work out who might want to police this…

Reevoo CEO Richard Anson, who we interviewed back in January, says:

“We think it is time that regulators looked at the way that customer reviews are presented online. Are they edited? Are they legitimate? Given the influence that customer reviews have, now is the time for regulation and standards to be applied, so that customers are not misled.”

The generic problem with kitemarks and standards is that they need to be policed, otherwise they’re worthless and can waste a huge amount of time for all involved. But regulators? What regulators? And let’s keep the EU out of this. Who or what might be in a position to regulate this kind of thing, on a global scale?

The other problem is that if consumers aren’t aware of what the kitemark means, then they don’t look for it, which makes it redundant. So you need significant buy-in from those companies that host these kinds of reviews, and I don’t see that happening. You also need to raise awareness of the scheme, which costs yet more money.

So before considering ‘how’ these reviews could be policed, let’s look at a more basic conundrum: Who will pay for these reviews to be policed? The retailers? Some unidentified trade body, funded by retailers? Or the likes of Reevoo and Bazaarvoice, who are in the business of making money from customer reviews?

Outrage!

This year we’ve seen rather too much mainstream press devoted to the sledging of online reviews, such as can be found on dedicated sites like TripAdvisor, retail sites like Amazon, and the shopping comparison engines. Much of it is tantamount to scaremongering.

The Times even did a ‘Special Report‘ on the subject last year and labelled various websites under the banner ‘READER BEWARE’. One of those websites was TripAdvisor, which is – at the time of writing – amusingly promoted in the right navigation as ‘Website of the Week‘!

Sure, some reviews are fake, but one bad apple does not spoil the whole bunch. It seems a little odd that Reevoo would want to add fat to this particular fire. Until you look at its business model…

See, Reevoo is in the business of selling ‘real’ reviews to retailers, and it is doing a great job. ‘Real’ means that it only accepts reviews from verified customers (who are invited to complete a questionnaire after a purchase). While this isn’t infallible, it does virtually guarantee a higher standard of feedback, since we at least know people have actually bought the product. But does that make these reviews 100% ‘accurate’?

By comparison, you can visit Amazon, log on, and leave a review on a product that you might not have necessarily bought. As such, you could argue that there are a higher proportion of phoney reviews on Amazon compared with Reevoo. But what does this really mean? Does it mean that consumers with no purchase history should be banned from submitting reviews? Seems harsh. Maybe they just buy their products offline.

What about journalists who don’t even buy products! They (do or don’t) play with journobait despatched by happy PR bunnies before forming an ‘expert’ view, and writing an expert review. A review which then appears in a magazine or newspaper. Are these reviews any more valid than one submitted on Amazon, by a user who didn’t buy the item through Amazon?

I’d also argue that a review should ideally involve more than just an appraisal of product / service quality (or lack of). Consider what happens when things start out badly. Your sexy new gadget won’t connect to the internet. Dang! If you wrote a review at that moment it would be terrible, right? But if you waited and factored in some amazing customer service then it might be extremely positive, if you liked the product.

The point is, reviews come in all shapes and sizes, and consumers find them useful when evaluating products and services. Some are more accurate than others. And there are always going to be fakes out there.

So let us once again revert to the ‘People Have Brains’ argument. Consumers should take everything they read, see or hear with a fat pinch of salt. Especially when they’re on the verge of handing over some precious credit card numbers. The fact that a small percentage of reviews might be bogus simply means that consumers shouldn’t rely on one review, or one source of reviews, but to digest a wide range of reviews before coming to a decision.

Two final questions for you to ponder:

  • If the likes of Amazon decided to avoid this proposed regulation / policing of its reviews, then would consumers stop using Amazon, or stop reading its reviews? Could a regulator prevent Amazon from hosting reviews? (No and, presumably, No)
  • If a verifiable purchase history is required before a consumer can review a product or service, then would that hugely reduce the amount of reviews being submitted? (Yes)