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Fake reviews becoming illegal in the UK

The new government proposals

In April 2022, the government proposed new rules to effectively make fake reviews in the UK illegal. To make fake reviews illegal, the proposal is to give the competition watchdog new powers to fine firms up to 10% of their global turnover for bad business practices. Additional platforms such as Google Reviews, Trustpilot and Feefo have to take ‘reasonable steps’ to confirm the reviews are genuine. 

This means the watchdog can now directly impose fines on businesses undertaking bad business practices (i.e. paying someone to write a fake review for them), and the review platforms, rather than action having to go through the courts.

Why fake reviews matter to SMEs

Reviews of your products and services have long been an important cornerstone for many SMEs in generating referrals, recommendations and building trust with prospective customers. It’s a key marketing activity within the tertiary marketing component of our own Common 10 Marketing Model

It’s been estimated that the average UK household spends around £900 a year after being influenced by online reviews. You only have to think of your own purchasing behaviour to understand that the star ratings you see from aggregated product and service reviews sway you to find out more or to move on.

Those are the positive benefits of reviews, but what about the consequences of fake reviews?

Fake reviews have seen an exponential increase in recent years, many considering it to have been driven by the pandemic forcing more and more businesses online. This could well be coupled with the fact that consumers are more aware of fake reviews. 

Research from earlier this year found survey respondents believe they have seen at least one fake review in 2021, over half seeing a fake Google review and over a third seeing a fake Facebook review. 

As fake product and service reviews are now being identified by consumers, it is eroding the trust in review platforms. 45% of respondents to the survey said they are now suspicious of Google reviews, and over two-thirds said the existence of fake reviews makes them distrustful of review sites in general. Therefore this previously key influencer in purchase-decisions could be coming less powerful.

Pair of scissors cutting trust

What are the providers doing about it?

Unsurprisingly, each review platform is managing fake reviews in a different way. So the first piece of advice we’d give is to select your review platform and actively manage it. Trying to manage multiple review sites will simply add resource without a great deal of benefit, whereas you could be allocating that additional time to another marketing activity.

In the case of a review platform such as Feefo, you give them a list of your customers, who they will then be emailed by Feefol asking for a review on your behalf. This ensures only real customers have the opportunity to leave a review of you and fake Feefo reviews are not present. The challenge with this is that it is open to abuse by some, by only giving a select number of customers in order to skew the results, or indeed fake customer details. 

Although Feefo do have measures in place to mitigate this, such as customers being able to request to leave a review if they’ve not been invited to do so, and a team verifying that the customers lists they’ve been provided with are real etc.

Request for customer review on mobile

At the other end of the scale you have more open platforms such as Google Reviews, where anyone can leave a review. Google encourages businesses to share their business’ review link with customers so that they know it is their customers who will dominate the reviews (or hopefully be the only people reviewing them). But beyond that, it largely uses AI (artificial intelligence) and its algorithm updates to manage it, besides manual notifications from businesses. 

In March 2022, Google made updates to how product reviews were ranked and appeared in the search results, based around the level of in-depth information they provide, whether they come from people who have used the product, offer unique information and compare products. This update relates to product reviews within the search results, rather than Google Reviews specifically, but it demonstrates the general trend and approach of Google’s work on fake reviews.

What this means for SMEs in terms of how to handle fake reviews

The big question then, what do SMEs do about the world of online reviews which are sadly becoming a bit murky due to the growth in fake reviews?

The good news is that fake reviews are effectively becoming illegal, so there are rules in place to manage, report and remove where necessary. Consumers are also becoming more savvy at identifying fake reviews, which is also helpful.

SMEs have a distinct advantage here too over larger businesses, because you are more likely to know your customers. So if a fake review is posted, you can spot they aren’t a real customer and report it. Here are some things to look out for to identify a fake review:

  • Look at the reviewer: there can be telltale signs that its fake reviewer such as the name, avatar, whether they have left multiple negative reviews across a range of businesses, how frequently they leave reviews and their location.

  • Content of the review: light on details, poor sentence construction and vague descriptions of the product or experience beyond negative adjectives, can raise a question mark.

  • Even fake reviews require best practice responses: of course you should flag it to Google (or anyone else) as a fake review (via Google My Business – flag as ‘inappropriate’) but you can still reply. If you are 100% certain they aren’t a customer, you can say so or if there is any doubt or only 99% sure it’s fake, be a bit softer that you don’t have a record of them or the issue, and to contact you to resolve. It should only be visible for a short period of time anyway before it is removed, but that way you are covered for if anyone sees it in the meantime.

Our final word on reviews…

This blog has also been written on the assumption that none of you have or were thinking about commissioning fake reviews – because that is a lose-lose situation: consumers are savvy to the tactics and will spot them, eroding trust in your business and potentially now leaving you with a fine to pay too! 

The subject of fake reviews is naturally a negative one and may leave you feeling like this a marketing minefield not to tread into. However, that would be a mistake. SMEs of course do experience problems with fake reviews, but you are in a much stronger position than larger businesses to handle fake reviews because you know your customers, and there are rules and measures in place on the review platforms too.

If we return to the original statistic in this blog, up to £900 per household, per year is spent on purchases influenced by reviews, it’s too big an opportunity and influencer to miss out on. Have your review strategy nailed down, from consistently asking for and incentivising reviews to proactively using them in your marketing – quotes, social posts, video testimonials and more.

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