How to Counter Fake Social Media Reviews

According to leading business analysts Gartner, as many as 10-15% of social media reviews will be fake by 2014.

Instead of honest customer reviews, praise and feedback on sites like Yelp and Google Places, we’ll have professionally-paid for reviews, either from a company trying to damage a competitor, or raise their own profile by posting multiple glowing reviews.

The report does mention that this will probably be more in the Enterprise market, but what’s to stop smaller businesses hiring interns and specialist agencies to post a review for them?

Mind you, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this analysis – as social business continues to take a stronger grip in the mainstream consumer business world, it’s perhaps stranger to ask why these percentages aren’t already in place now (maybe they are).

The good news is, there are steps that can be taken to protect your reputation as a business, as well as stay on the right side of the law when it comes to this newer form of peer and customer recommendation.

Make Social Media Reviews Socially Accountable

On this blog, you’ll see I use the Livefyre comment system. Now, currently I have it set to accept guest comments – however, by a flick of the switch in my admin area, I can change that up and only allow readers to comment after logging in via the likes of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

So, when it comes to posting reviews on the likes of Yelp, Google Places and elsewhere, make it the same process.

If you want to leave a review, you have to log in with your Facebook profile, or LinkedIn account. This immediately adds accountability to the process – your name and business is inextricably tied to your review. This makes it far easier to see which is a valid review, and which belongs to a fake.

For instance, let’s say Joe Smith left a crappy review on Yelp for Acme Restaurant, Toronto. The owners of the restaurant can see the review, and then check Joe’s profile on Facebook.

If it’s a valid one, they can then ask Joe to come in with his receipt and they’ll refund the cost of the meal. What, Joe doesn’t have a receipt because he was never there?

Gotcha – that takes us on to the second part of the process.

Build a Digital Ethics Agreement

In the last couple of years, social media has attracted the interest of organizations like the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the U.S., the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) in the U.K., and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada.

These organizations are forcing the hands of advertisers and marketers in social media to be above board when it comes to how they’re targeting consumers in the space and, in the case of the Privacy Commissioner, making Facebook change their privacy terms when it comes to sharing information about its users.

So, there are already governing procedures under way and ongoing when it comes to making sure the medium isn’t being used in questionable ways.

The problem is, they’re splintered. The FTC has no real jurisdiction outside of the U.S, and vice versa with the U.K. and Canadian equivalents (although they can work with each other in cross-border cases).

So, technically, a Canadian business could operate around U.S. consumers and (unless picked up) be outwith the legalities of that country. This is where the fake social media reviewers (solo or agency) would win.

However, the Internet is one big global community when it comes to e-commerce. I don’t care if I need to buy a British import CD from Japan to complete my Canadian music collection using Bitcoin – it’s a global market and I’ll use whatever means I need to.

Now, while this may be too simple in actuality over theory, if there was a global Digital Ethics Committee that handled stuff like online reviews, social marketing, etc, and created a governing law that applied to online transactions and subsequent reviews – well wouldn’t that help counter the fake reviews?

The businesses that are caught paying for fake reviews are banned from review sites for X amount of years, with a disclaimer on their Yelp or Places page that advises visitors why there’s no official presence.

By naming and shaming (as well as the obligatory fine and damages paid), consumers can see which companies live by their product and which live by their producing of lies.

As Consumers, We Need Protecting

It may be that these two suggestions are too simple for such a legal minefield. And, despite the Internet’s global reach, the arms of it at a country and cultural level are still too disparate for the simple approach to work.

For now, anyways.

But as we move into a more socially-led and active world, and the stakes continue to rise as to those businesses that will succeed versus those that will flounder, the playground needs to take a stand now.

While social sign-ins may not be the answer (although it’s a lot easier to spot a fake Facebook or LinkedIn account than it is to filter a bogus email), and cross-border integration into a single unit might be a ways off, it’s important we start to think of solutions today.

Otherwise, that tomorrow of 2014 will come a lot quicker than we think, and it’s more than just our reputations at stake – it’s our very future business success.

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