In March 2014, it looked like the online review landscape might be changed when Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, won a suit against Yelp that would require Yelp to release the legal identities of seven anonymous reviewers who had posted reviews that could not be matched with actual customer services provided.
The ruling was later overturned on a technicality because Hadeed could not show definitively that the anonymous reviewers were not customers; their names or service addresses were not available to be compared with Hadeed’s customer records.
And so began the saga that led to more lawsuits from businesses against Yelp and other online review sites/services where, many suspect, there are more purchased reviews than organic ones. The sheer volume of lawsuits against Yelp alone that Prost Productions, Inc., has successfully raised funding for a documentary Billion Dollar Bully investigating Yelp’s alleged transgressions.
But if Yelp’s recent food delivery acquisition is any indication, Yelp is headed for direct battle with Google and Amazon in the online marketplace arena, far beyond the game of reviews.
The Question: Is buying (good or bad) reviews unethical?
Business and technology lawyer Joy Butler (link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joybutler) explains, “Not only is buying reviews an unethical business practice, it is illegal and can lead to significant punitive monetary damages leveled against you by the government. In one case, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) penalized Legacy Learning Systems $250,000 to settle FTC charges that the company paid affiliate marketers to pose as independent consumers and write glowing online reviews about the company’s products. Posting negative reviews about a competitor’s business could lead to lawsuits alleging things like libel and product disparagement.”
While creating and posting positive reviews for your company may initially seem like a good marketing technique,” Butler continues, “it can be an expensive mistake. The Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising Prohibitions specifically prohibit such online shilling. If you pay anyone for endorsing or recommending your company’s services, the law expects you to disclose such compensation. This even includes bloggers and other social media types to whom a company might give free company products in the hopes of favorable blog and social media mentions. The FTC regards those freebies as compensation and expects that compensation to be disclosed in any resulting online reviews.
The First Amendment versus The Internet
Despite the fact that buying reviews is illegal – whether good ones for your own business or bad ones for a competitor – the fact remains that it’s so easy and fast to do that the legal system’s ability to track and catch perpetrators is strained.
Why? Because “the Internet” empowers the creation of new options and opportunity faster than laws and legal loopholes can keep up.
At this time, the law cannot compel a website like Yelp to reveal the identities of reviewers who wish to remain anonymous. And without clear evidence that an anonymous review is made by someone who is not a consumer of the services about which the review is written, the court is obligated to protect the reviewer’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even anonymously.
Amazon Fights Back
In April 2015, Amazon filed suit against California resident Jay Gentile as well as several anonymous owner/operators of “reviews for purchase” websites, several specifically aimed at securing reviews for product listed on Amazon’s open marketplace.
Bobsled Marketing owner and consultant Kiri Masters works with a number of companies with products listed for sale on Amazon; she offers these insights about the practice of review purchasing:
- Customer reviews are critical to sales conversion on product pages. One of my clients who had only two reviews across their product listings recently ran a promotion to encourage genuine customer reviews; now their sales are around $1,000/week
- Amazon’s terms of service defer to the FTC’s requirement for persons receiving a product for free to disclose it as such in their reviews. Most reviewers comply with this requirement, so it should. It is interesting to note however that when a brand is generously giving away their product for free, few testers will give it a poor review, opting instead to attempt to resolve it with the brand.
Masters notes that the ethics of giving products away for free in exchange for a usually-favorable review is murky, even when the reviewer is careful to disclose this fact in their review.
5 Steps to Earning Positive Organic Reviews
With Amazon Home Services – including cleaning services – expanding rapidly since its launch earlier in 2015 and Google expected to follow with its own online marketplace and reviews plugged in, the Amazon lawsuit is being closely watched by all stakeholders in the review industry.
But what we know is that consumers rely on what appear to be objective reviews by fellow service recipients to determine not just with whom they actually spend money but often whom they even visit your website with your credentials and amazing testimonials or call for a conversation first.
For business owners choosing to steer far clear of any hint of wrong-doing, continue developing your quality control procedures and metrics as well as your customer loyalty-building initiatives:
- Train thoroughly
- Inspect and quality check pro-actively
- Anticipate and respond to complaints quickly and positively
- Wow each customer
- Ask happy customers for reviews periodically
CeCe Mikell is the Editor-in-Chief for Cleaning Business Today, coming to the cleaning industry from a 15-year career as a college professor of communication and business. She also works with several cleaning business owners on business development projects.
Originally published August 11, 2015 at CleaningBusinessToday.com.