‘A knife to the heart’: How fake reviews can hurt a business

Talking points

  • The ACCC warns consumers who rely on online reviews should:
  • Seek information from multiple sources.
  • Be wary of reviewers or online contributors whose profile indicates that they have only ever written one review. The profile may have been created to write a fake review.
  • Be wary of review platforms with overwhelmingly high reviews. This may be attributable to the deletion of credible negative reviews.
  • Look at multiple reviews and comments about the same business and take note of any irregularities, such as a spike in positive reviews over a short period of time or multiple reviews with a similar tone and vocabulary, as they may have been authored by the same person.

After a four year streak gathering more than 270 five-star positive reviews on Google and Facebook, Elise VonTea says it was "like a knife to the heart" when she logged on to see the two most recent reviews for her business were one star excoriations.

"It's devastating," the owner of Quality Lashes in Sydney says. "It's huge and can cause a big impact as often clients research on Google by looking at reviews and book in because of our five star reviews."

Elise VonTea is the owner of Quality Lashes in Newtown. Credit:Peter Braig

VonTea is convinced the one star reviews are fake as she has no records of the two clients names in her database and one of the reviews claims she cancelled the appointment within an hour.

"I would never ever do that, unless I was basically dying and I don’t recall having ever done that," says VonTea.

Dealing with online reviews is a growing concern for businesses with positive reviews having the potential to turbo charge sales while negative reviews can significantly deter customers.

There is growing demand for online reputation firms like startup Removify which offer services removing negative online reviews.

Double Bay plastic surgeon Kourosh Tavakoli arrives for a related court case with lawyer Sue Chrysanthou. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Legal battle

The impact of a bad online review means they are also increasingly a legal battleground. Double Bay plastic surgeon Kourosh Tavakoli was awarded $530,000 alongside costs and interest by the NSW Supreme Court last month after a false review was posted on Google by a client.

Tavakoli gave evidence he was "extremely distressed and embarrassed" by the review and following its publication the rate of visitors to his business website dropped by 23.61 per cent in less than one week.

Justice Stephen Rothman found the client had defamed Tavakoli by implying in the review he was incompetent, cruel in his dealings as a doctor and a bully who intimidates patients that raise legitimate complaints.

You can't remove all the negative reviews and leave all the glowing ones.

"[She] published the material in order to punish [Tavakoli]," he found. "She did so in circumstances where she knew, at the time of the publication, that the imputations in the publication were untrue."

A spokesperson for Tavakoli said he was trying to move on from the past two years of clearing his name and he declined to comment.

Competition watchdog looks to enforce

It's also an area of concern for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which has taken a number of enforcement actions against business over their handling of online reviews.

That including a court action resulting in a $3 million penalty ordered against Meriton over its manipulation of TripAdvisor reviews and a case against online marketplace ServiceSeeking which is currently before the Federal Court.

One of the negative reviews of Elise VonTea’s Quality Lashes business.

When confronted with a fake review Hubble-Marriott says in most circumstances this is likely to be defamatory in which case her advice is to issue a take-down notice under Australian Consumer Law.

"Reputation is so critical and it is in some respects more vulnerable than it has ever been because of the ability of someone to sit at home at a keyboard and damage your business," she says.

VonTea has not sought legal redress but instead responded to the two negative reviews and reported them to Google.

But she says reporting to the search giant is difficult as Google's mechanisms only allow reporting for reviews that are abusive or a scam, there is no option for reporting that a client is not genuine.

With a turnover of $400,000 last year and four staff VonTea says the impact of the negative reviews is hard to quantify but she is sure she has lost customers as a result.

Elise VonTea has succeeded in having one of the negative online reviews removed. Credit:Peter Braig

"I know that the way we as business owners respond to reviews is often more important than the negative review, as the review may not be taken down and the response can be seen by everyone looking at the reviews," she says.

"Through honest feedback you can grow but I wish people would email me first."

One of the negative reviews has now been removed by Google and VonTea is focused on accumulating more positive reviews.

"I was lucky with 270 good reviews, two bad reviews won't kill me," she says.

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