Fake Reviews – A Moral Problem?

In this day and age of online manipulation in search and controversial comments and topics on Twitter, you would think that large corporations and Multi-Billion dollar industries would choose to sidestep the minefield of public slandering and the equivalent of playground bullying. To raise their heads snootily and claim “we’re above all of that”. We would like to think this is the case….but it’s far from the truth.

In our industry, particularly in Search, there are rules one should follow and there’s also a professional conduct that is universally recognised as the “way to behave” to your fellow online competitors. Unfortunately, there are always those that like to spoil the party and are undoubtedly the ones who cause further restrictions to be put in place and to make the online market a tougher nut to crack. Blackhat SEO offenders though, are not the only ones we need worry about online, with more and more big-brand businesses knowingly taking part in the defamation or slandering of a competitor, in the guise of “reviews and testimonials”. Is it fair game? And should review sites have more stringent safeguards in place to ensure trust?

Samsung Wrist-Slapped

Samsung are one such company, who have recently been fined by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission for online campaigns that they funded and organised, which manipulated false opinion against their rivals and fellow phone manufacturers HTC. They paid students to write articles which directly attacked HTC. Not only is this a shockingly vicious tactic that you wouldn’t expect from a large brand such as Samsung, it’s also just wrong in a professional and moral way. It’s dishonest and just not something you would expect from such a prestigious brand. And yet, the opportunity was there to do it and be successful at it.

Patents are filed all the time and court cases are a common occurrence in the tech-world, with both of these tech-giants, amongst others having plenty to throw at each other over the years. Does it level itself out eventually, with slander just part of the back-and-forth of the “Big Brand Battle” in the technology industry? Is it justified in the big leagues?

Whether the answer is yes, or no, purposely trashing your competitor through devious means is bad enough and isn’t even a good PR stunt but it seems that the punishment just doesn’t fit the crime. Samsung were fined $340,000 which is a small drop in the ocean compared with the rumoured 54 Billion dollars they earned last year.

So where is the incentive not to do it? Is it possible? Yes. Did they get away with it, with the damage already done? Yes. It’s all because it’s too easy currently, to slander someone online.

Yelp Cause Controversy

Yelp have had a hard time recently with a lot of backlash online about how they treat customers. Business owners are furious that Yelp are allowing “reviews” online that negatively slate their business but yet, do not give any details as to the author of the review, in order to respond. Yelp are heading to the Virgina Supreme Court and are having to defend themselves against claims of manipulation and fake reviews, something which could be a death sentence for them, considering they solely rely on their trust and authority their brand should exude online. This is being called into question as the Federal Trade Commission has received over 2000 complaints from business owners since 2008, about negative reviews being posted about their businesses, after that business had refused to advertise on Yelp and following multiple sales pitches from Yelp staff.

This is a big accusation but there’s clearly something there to investigate with so many complaints over a 6 year period about the same issue. The numbers are stacking up and it doesn’t look good for Yelp. Fraudulent reviews can impact a business in a big way and some of those businesses have reported big drops in revenue since the reviews in question were posted. Unlike The Samsung and HTC case mentioned above, this now isn’t about companies with billions of dollars revenue to spend on marketing. These are complaints from individuals who have their livelihood tied up in their businesses or family-run businesses that are trying to build a brand but that are being hit with negative, possibly fake reviews. It’s worrying that not only could Yelp be getting away with it but that they could be flat-out denying it and facilitating it.

We won’t know until the case has ended which way it swings but I think favour is with the businesses at the moment, who have raised the concerns and Yelp’s refusal to reveal the identities of the reviewers makes it even more suspicious. Negative reviews and comments online are damaging to any business but as we’ve seen with the Samsung case, larger brands are more insulated from it due to sheer size and financial resources. If it impacted them as much as the little guy, I feel there would be more urgency to fix this ever-growing problem.

The Yelp case could be cleared up a lot quicker if they divulged the names of the reviewers and barring any privacy policy (I’m pretty sure there is no ban on this), they could squash the accusations immediately. But their reluctance does come across as if they are hiding something. Again, aside from the other implications, it’s a pretty vindictive thing to do, morally appalling and it is quite close to an act of sabotage. They’ve also been accused of removing the full star reviews and only displaying the negative 1 or two star reviews. Everyone is entitled to free speech and if a genuine customer hasn’t enjoyed a particular service, it is their right to say so. But if they are not genuine this could potentially cripple a business’ brand and these types of companies need to be stopped without question. Ultimately, Yelp is a reviews-based business and they are accountable for the material that they post. Just because the opportunity is there for them to do it, shouldn’t mean that they should.