Online Reviews Are Playing Impressionable Mind Games

Zach Brooke
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? Online review sites are reshaping the customer journey.

So what? At the same time, ways to game the s​​ystem​ have emerged, muddying reviews.

Now what? Recognize that your brand's online reviews are hugely important to gaining new customers and make ethical efforts to use the pages to your advantage. ​

April 7, 2017

Companies are looking for help to take control of their reputations in the anything-goes world of online reviews. But with so many efforts to manipulate ratings, will consumers still trust reviews enough to care?

Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes and Fries is an expanding chain of fast-casual restaurants located largely in the southeastern United States.

The style is 1950s diner, complete with checkered tile, hot pink countertops matched with neon tube signing and kids’ baskets served in cardboard convertibles. The chain takes its name from the 200-mile state freeway that begins at the Atlantic Ocean and winds inward through North Carolina, running past Goldsboro, home of its first location, before terminating at Durham. Founded by Kenney Moore, an out-of-work restaurant manager using money borrowed from his father-in-law, the chain originally opened as Andy’s Cheesesteaks and Cheeseburgers. It was rebranded in 2012 when it became successful enough to expand beyond North Carolina, only to find the name Andy’s already trademarked in several states.

By all appearances an entirely new operation—at least as far as the Department of Commerce is concerned—Hwy 55 still keeps a large part of its heritage employed in its Mount Olive, North Carolina, headquarters.

“I wasn’t too upset when the name was changed, to be honest. Growing up with a burger restaurant named after you has its pluses and minuses, for sure,” says Andy Moore, son of Kenney Moore and director of communications for Hwy 55. “My dad started the company about 25 years ago when I was 18 months old. I’m very, very proud of him. I was in the stores in my diapers early on. I came back here to work about three years ago, and it’s been really fun.”

When Moore started working in Hwy 55 corporate offices, he monitored customer reviews with just a checklist and a spreadsheet. It became overwhelming. But the need to continue the research remained.

“Reviews are becoming increasingly important, to the point now where it’s one of the major things we look at when we’re trying to find really good customer feedback,” he says. “We primarily go into smaller communities and try to become the go-to burger joint, and we really rely a lot on repeat visits. One bad experience can wreck customer loyalty for a long time.”

Eventually, Hwy 55 hired a third-party review management company to organize product reviews from a single dashboard. Now, Moore says the information he gets from online reviews is in some respects more valuable than customer surveys, the previous gold standard for gauging sentiment.

“I think our surveys tended to skew a little too positive. The people who were doing them were real loyalists that tended to not tell us where we could actually do better. We welcome the negative feedback,” he says.

The focus on product reviews has extended to hiring an employee whose job duties include reaching out to customers that report bad experiences and, “turning it into a positive.” So far, the system has resulted in the average rating for Hwy 55 locations jumping from 3.8 to 4.1 stars. Same-store sales are up as well.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg. It’s tough to say if better reviews are leading toward more business, or the things that create better reviews lead to more business, but there is a link between our highest-preforming stores and having an average rating of over four stars,” Moore says.

The approach Moore is taking in Mount Olive has a counterpart in Minneapolis, where Troy Janisch, the vice president of social intelligence for U.S. Bank, is overseeing a large initiative to promote brand health via active ownership of local listings and engagement with consumer reviews.

It’s a scaled-up version of Moore’s efforts. U.S. Bank has more than 3,100 branches, compared to Hwy 55’s 131 restaurants. Beyond Facebook, Google and Yelp, its products and services are evaluated on a variety on finance industry niche sites. Added to that pile are anonymous employee reviews posted on Glassdoor​, which are benchmarked against ratings given to U.S. Bank’s competitors, as well as Apple Store data for the two apps put out by the company.

Janisch spends a lot of time thinking about reviews. He calls them the most valuable form of social data, in contrast to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. As he sees it, posts about brands on these spaces can be very short, making it hard for algorithms to classify them as positive or negative. Or they could be an opinion about a policy coming out of corporate headquarters, rather than service at the location around the corner. It can also be hard to know for sure if users are talking about a specific company, especially one like U.S. Bank that combines two very generic terms.

On top of all that, Janisch says when users take to social media to talk about a brand, it’s often because they’ve just had a bad experience, and they’re looking to vent by bad-mouthing the brand. “We want to take that offline and have a conversation and help solve their problem,” he says.

Review sites are more helpful in providing customer feedback. “The two items that social media monitoring is toughest with is relevance and sentiment. Those are two things that review data guarantees accuracy with,” Janisch says. “Not only do we know if the experience is good or bad, but we know the intensity.”


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Janisch goes so far as to subscribe to the concept of Net Customer Sentiment. It’s a take on the traditional Net Promoter Score, a survey metric intended to gauge loyalty by asking how likely a customer is to recommend branded items to a friend or colleague. Because review sites often reflect strong consumer emotions (on a five-point scale most responses will be a one or five; three will be the least-selected rating), they can effectively measure brand loyalty within the marketplace. 

“A company of any size can leverage the customer review data to both measure and benchmark sentiment,” Janisch says. “That’s the foundation of Net Promoter Score. People who have an average experience are never going to become brand advocates or critics. It does take a certain amount of emotion or intensity for someone who is not being solicited to go out of their way and decide that they want to share information about your company with others, which makes it much more valuable.

A neat trick, to be sure, but the value of product reviews extends far beyond insights into customer loyalty. That’s why both Hwy 55 and U.S. Bank turned to online review management solution ReviewTrackers to help control their influence in the realm of product review sites. 

WHAT’S IN A REVIEW? 

Since opening its doors in 2012, ReviewTrackers has swelled to 50 employees and launched verticals in finance, health care, insurance and retail to supplement their core services for location-based businesses. Using a proprietary technology that stacks on top of IBM’s Watson, ReviewTrackers is able to comb roughly 85 sites for all manner of testimonials and spot trends in that data.

The company estimates 70% of searchers report online reviews are either the first or second factor they consider when choosing a local business, and that 53% of searches lead to an appointment or visit within 48 hours of the search. A separate report by SEO marketing agency BrightLocal says 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. 

All these numbers hint at what ReviewTrackers believes to be reality: Online reviews have become the fountainhead of the modern customer journey. Monitor and engage them, and see your image rise in consumers’ estimation. Ignore them, and you leave your marketing to the mercy of the masses. 

“Sometimes in marketing, we look at the small effect. The changes we make,” Janisch says. “If you think about it in terms of the amount of influence reviews have, you can make the argument that 70% of your business is at risk if the review data that is out there isn’t supporting your company.”

With Hwy 55, ReviewTrackers’ goal was simple: Provide a one-stop shop for the company to manage its reviews and suggest pathways to boost volume and rating. U.S. Bank wanted a little more. It requested help consolidating local listings (there were more than 7,000 different pages for 3,100 actual locations) and leveraging them to enhance SEO. With ReviewTrackers, it was possible to assert an official presence on evaluation sites and eliminate the redundant pages that were bleeding traffic. Many false listings were the result of mundane mistakes like misformatted brand names and inaccurate street addresses, which needed simple clean-up. 

“Once you claim those profiles, they are like micro-sites for you,” says Mandy Yoh, head of communications for ReviewTrackers. “Not only were we helping that particular client with increasing their search visibility, but we helped improve star ratings, and we helped incentivize different branches of the company, so that they have really great ratings and hit that level of customer service that they want to hit as an overall, across-the-board fit.”

Yoh credits the work done at ReviewTrackers with integrating total online presentation for clients, and in some cases, discovering customer experience problems.

There’s American Family Insurance: “They were looking to get really organized, and have all of their local listings claimed. But they also wanted to get a line of sight about what their customers were saying about them. They had no idea.”

And Midas: “They found out that in California, their ratings were really, really, really bad and they didn’t understand why. They found out one of the biggest things they had promoted as part of their customer service mission was that everybody gets a free tire rotation with an oil change. [Individual] locations saw that customers just wanted to get out [of the shop] as quick as possible, so they weren’t doing the tire rotation. It inevitably came out in the reviews. People were pissed they didn’t get this free tire rotation. The company said, ‘Let’s start doing it [everywhere] and see if the reviews change.’ And they absolutely did.” 

And Giordano’s Pizzeria: “They have created an internal incentive program. Their locations have to hit a certain star rating or have to grow by a certain percentage and those locations will be rewarded.”

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS 

It’s an unfortunate truth in business that where there’s success, a scam will follow. The flip side of consumer reviews becoming a powerful driver of consumer spending is the emergence of ways to game the system. The democratization of consumer reports has shown itself susceptible to fraud, bribery and intimidation. Efforts have and continue to be made to remove the bad actors from the equation, but it’s an open question as to how much consumers will take before losing faith in the accuracy of the meter.  

A 2011 study of Yelp ratings by Harvard professor Michael Luca found that a one-star rating increase for businesses corresponded with a 5% to 9% increase in sales. That creates a strong incentive to inflate scores. Businesses that are tempted to fudge review data need look no further than the gig economy flourishing online. 

A few years ago, the internet was teeming with offers to rate an item in exchange for payment. Then, enterprising middlemen got involved and created click farms that promised to blanket products with a distinguished and thoroughly reviewed track record. Sometimes there wasn’t even a third party. Sellers would just start cranking out fake accounts and go to town, either boosting their products or sandbagging the competition.

Sites like Amazon responded with a flurry of strategic lawsuits aimed at operators it suspected of product ratings manipulation. In 2015, the company sued more than 1,000 people who posted offers on the freelance website Fiverr to write fake Amazon reviews in return for compensation. Last year, Amazon attacked the problem from the other end by filing another suit against three sellers it suspected of buying fake reviews.

Yelp has also responded to suspicious reviews with ligation. In 2013, research conducted by Harvard Business School found nearly 16% of reviews in the Boston area were fake. That same year, Yelp filed suit (and later won default judgment) against the operator of BuyYelpReviews.com. 

It’s not just corporate skullduggery that is affecting the legitimacy of the reviewsphere. People submit evaluations based on all sorts of factors unrelated to their actual experience, including proverbial trolls or those inflamed by politics. A recent study by marketing automation firm Signpost found that one-star ratings have tripled for businesses affiliated with President Donald Trump since his election in November. 

Despite the crackdowns on fake reviews, the phenomenon has not disappeared from the internet. A quick search on sites like Craigslist and Fiverr turns up a handful of people advertising their willingness to review for the right price.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. A Yelp spokesperson released a statement outlining the steps the company takes to guard against fake reviews. It reads:

“First, we use automated recommendation software to help us determine which reviews to recommend to our users so that we are only highlighting the most useful and reliable reviews. More often than not, these reviews come from the more active members of the Yelp community. We currently recommend about 70% of the 120+ million reviews contributed. There are several reasons a review might not be recommended. The software is engineered to weed out possible fakes (several reviews generated from the same IP address), biased reviews (written by a competitor or solicited by a business owner from friends, family members or favorite customers), unhelpful rants or raves, and reviews written by users we just don’t know much about (no friends, no picture, few reviews, etc.).”

Reviews have become such a public utility in the realm of commerce that governments are beginning to get involved. In 2013, regulators in New York fined 19 companies a combined $350,000 after it found them to be relying on overseas organizations to boost their ratings. And last year, Congress passed and then-President Barack Obama signed the Consumer Review Fairness Act, which prohibits businesses from inserting language into their terms and conditions that forbids customers from reviewing the company.

Prior to the federal law, there had been several instances of businesses attempting to silence critics through fines. One prominent example involved a hotel in Hudson, New York, that demanded anyone who books the space for an event be fined $500 for every negative online review left by the customers or any of their guests.

“Consumer reviews are an important part of helping other consumers make choices in the marketplace. Information about goods and services helps the buyers set the valuation and pick the best vendors,” says Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University and co-director of the school’s High Tech Law Institute.

Goldman has written an analysis of the Consumer Review Fairness Act that is scheduled for publication in a forthcoming issue of Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, but is available online now. He applauds the steps the law takes to protect consumers who speak about their experiences, but also suggests it doesn’t go far enough to protect the right to voice opinions on review sites. He says that companies still engage in heavy-handed tactics to force reviewers to rescind unwelcome critiques. 

One case making its way through the court system right now could, if successful, upend the entire online review concept. San Francisco personal injury attorney Dawn Hassell sued her former client, Ava Bird, for libel after deducing that she was responsible for the diatribes posted to Yelp about her practice. Hassel won a default judgement after Bird no-showed for her court appearance, which included an order that Yelp remove the offending review. 

Yelp, which was not named as a defendant in the case, appealed the ruling, saying it was protected. It lost and appealed again, this time to the California Supreme Court, where the case is currently being decided. The high stakes of the case are reflected by the number of amicus briefs filed by interested parties, which read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley and include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest and the Wikimedia Foundation. 

Goldman says there are a number of ways the case could be decided, especially since the lower court’s opinion has been removed as binding precedent. But, Goldman says, if the California Supreme Court were to agree with the lower court rulings, then “none of it is good for consumers.”

“There is no way that consumers are going to win under the appellate court ruling. The main reason why is for every possibly fake review that would be scrubbed, it’s likely that lots of legitimate reviews would be scrubbed as well.”

Whatever the outcome, Goldman notes that the case is similar to many disputes between businesses and customers regarding review content.

“When businesses contact consumers threatening them over a review, consumers fold instantly, Goldman says. “When we talk about the consumer review system, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s easy to spook consumers from writing reviews and standing behind their reviews.”

He calls for the adoption of a federal anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law, which would prohibit businesses from intimidating consumers who leave unfavorable reviews while still protecting a company’s right to sue for defamation or information proven to be false.

“We face constant threats that the review databases are being shaped by behind-the-scenes threats or enforcement efforts that never result in a public court case,” Goldman says. “[A federal anti-SLAPP law is] the single biggest lever that Congress can pull that can improve the integrity of consumer reviews.

Reforms from the market side are also impacting the reviewsphere. Review aggregators have sprouted up, offering to estimate the true ratings of products by discarding reviews their scripts flag as suspect. Tommy Noonan has been running one such site for years. Called SupplementReviews.com, it was created to be a fair critic of workout and nutritional supplements.

“It all started in 2006 when I was still in college. My roommate gave me a supplement he had bought called N.O. Xplode. It was one of the first pre-workout supplements that was loaded with caffeine and designed to give explosive workouts in the gym. He claimed that the only explosion it gave him at the gym was having to run to the bathroom, so he gave the rest of the container to me,” Noonan says. “My first thought was, it’s too bad he didn’t know about this side effect before he bought it. [But] I searched Google and could not find any platform for supplement reviews, so I figured that it was time for me to start one.”

The long-running success of SupplementReviews inspired Noonan to create ReviewMeta, which analyzes the reviews of thousands of items listed on Amazon. The site works to uncover reviews that are not “naturally occurring,” and filter those out before providing an adjusted rating. He says some of the biggest red flags are users with a single review, several reviews written in one day or giving five stars to every item they rate.

This kind of vetting could change the business of consumer reviews. In fact, Noonan has already helped score one big victory against incentivized reviews (reviews left by users who receive a free or discounted version of a product in exchange for evaluation). At one point, Noonan estimated they made up one-fifth of all the reviews on Amazon. Like pay-per-review companies, third-party vendors appeared that would match manufacturers wanting to build a review history for new products with reviewers happy to take a look at free stuff. 

In September, the site ReviewMeta analyzed 7 million Amazon reviews and concluded that the average incentivized review was 0.4 stars higher than the average non-incentivized review. Moreover, it was discovered that many third-party review clubs allowed vendors to choose who gets to rate their products, allowing them to cherry-pick subjects they thought would report favorably.

 

 Data Proves Amazon Reviews with "Free or Discounted Disclaimer" are Extremely Biased

 

“The third-party review clubs were a massive problem,” Noonan says. “Most of the reviewers knew that if they didn’t give everything a five-star review, they would probably be kicked off the platform. The sellers essentially ran the show and used these platforms as ways to generate thousands of positive reviews relatively cheaply.”

Three weeks after ReviewMeta’s findings were released, Amazon announced it would discontinue incentivized reviews, with the exception of books or reviews facilitated through its in-house review shop, Amazon Vine.

The fact that Noonan is expanding the scope of his review assessments after a decade speaks volumes about the demand for clean feedback. Although his methods cause some headaches for the big names in the review world, the day may come when those same companies thank him for saving consumer confidence in reviews. Every time there is another dispute or ambiguity concerning product reviews, the whole ecosystem takes a hit. With reviews becoming an important starting point on the customer journey, the evaporation of confidence in review quality authenticity would mean digital marketing chaos. 

Even now, there is suspicion stirring among consumers in regard to the legitimacy of measured feedback.  

“I don’t have any hard data to back this up, my gut says that [suspicions] are definitely more widespread than they were 10 years ago,” Noonan says. “The stakes are higher than they ever have been in the past. Not only are online purchases growing, but every retailer seems to have their own customer reviews sections. The tools to acquire fake reviews are much more abundant. With popular services like Mechanical Turk, Odesk, Fiverr and others, it’s now easier and cheaper to outsource extremely cheap labor to generate fake reviews. Social media makes it easy for brands to offer incentives for their fans to review them.”

It’s not only consumer advocates like Noonan or Goldman who should want to guarantee a clean review ecosystem, nor big review sites like Amazon and Yelp. Rather, every brand that cares about making its voice heard on the platforms where it is judged should want to keep existing platforms in place. It’s a case of choosing between the devil you know and the one you don’t. 

Or as Troy Janisch of U.S. Bank puts is, “It’s in the interest of every company to retain the integrity of the platforms that customers choose to use. If we don’t do that, the platforms that exist today will wither, and new platforms will emerge where brands won’t be invited to participate at all.”


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Author Bio:

https://auth.ama.org/publishingimages/zack_bio.jpg
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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