The Complicated Ethics of Reviews & Ratings

by · January 29, 201318 comments

The single social necessity we all have as humans is not to have power, but to not be left powerless. This fundamental principle led pilgrims to new lands, colonists to organize governments and oppressed of all walks of life to rally against those holding the notion of powerlessness over them.

And so it comes to bear on the Internet. Protecting your reputation is an activity all people and organizations should participate in. Companies are especially keen to this practice because the liberation of publishing has led to the simple fact that anyone can post anything about anything online, regardless of motive or motivation, with little recourse in the offing. Sure, libel and slander online are still libel and slander, but there’s a whole lot of reputation-sensitive content that won’t fall under the guise of legal precedent.

Anyone can jump online and say, “You suck, company!” That’s not libel. That’s opinion.

Unfortunately, many sites, especially those in the business of aggregating ratings and reviews, take a company or an individual’s power to protect their reputation away from them. Allegations abound from Yelp to ResellerRatings.com and more. Heck, even RipOffReport.com — the site you’re supposed to be able to go to and report ripoffs, has been alleged to trade payment for positive reviews or removal of bad ones.

If these sites are allowing anyone to post reviews of businesses and individuals, there’s no issue. However, many of the sites have been caught or alleged to have filtered out positive reviews only to tell the businesses in question they’ll post the positive ones, or perhaps have a writer from the website produce a positive story about the business, in exchange for money. No pay, no positive reviews. That’s not only not fair, it leaves the businesses powerless.

Forcing a business to pay to add positive or remove negative reviews is nothing less than blackmail

Yelp even has gone so far as to discourage businesses from encouraging their customers to post reviews on the site. As we’ve discussed before, while their terms of service don’t explicitly state so, an answer on their FAQs in as much says Yelp doesn’t think businesses will solicit reviews in and of themselves, but will only solicit positive ones, thus biasing the content. They assume businesses will exchange discounts for reviews as well, not considering that a business owner may just say to their customers, “Good or bad, review us on Yelp. It will help us get better and/or look better.”

From the review site’s perspective, I can see second-guessing the transparency of the random business owner. I stopped counting the number of clients who have asked me to take down negative reviews or delete negative posts on their Facebook page without even addressing the situation first. So there may be a need for a policy against pushing positive reviews.

But from the business’s perspective, if the only way to combat negative reviews is to pay the site to allow them to solicit or produce positive ones, you’re biasing the information just as badly.

We’d like to assume that every business would solicit reviews — good and bad — and respond to each accordingly. But the honest truth is that most business owners would only solicit positive ones and would just as soon sweep the negative ones under the rug. Still, holding positive reviews hostage and forcing the business to pay is simply put: blackmail.

Is There A Solution?

While a perfect resolution for the great ratings and reviews quandary probably isn’t in the offing, if I were made King of Ratings and Review sites tomorrow and could write policies for them all, I would construct something like this:

It is our intent to offer our site visitors organically posted reviews of every business listed, both positive and negative, that are not solicited from any interested party. However, we understand that businesses may want to use our platform to host customer reviews and ratings for all to see. As such, here are some basic guidelines for businesses on doing so:

  • If you ask your customers to post ratings or reviews to this site, please only ask them to do so honestly and refrain from asking only for positive reviews
  • Do not offer customers a discount or incentive for posting ratings or reviews to this site
  • Should we discover evidence that any business has or is soliciting only positive reviews, or is incenting people to post reviews, we will remove any reviews (positive or negative) we determine to be produced during the timeframe of such encouragement or solicitation and temporarily suspend the businesses ability to mange its page and content on the site
  • Repeat violators of our policies will permanently lose the ability to manage their brand page, access brand page analytics or receive any benefits of premium or advertising partner relationships with our company
  • Actively respond and participate in discussions about your ratings and reviews on the site, but do so in a fair and professional manner with the spirit of serving your customers — good, bad or indifferent — with excellence in mind

Upon request, we will supply your business with point-of-sale and on-premise signage to encourage customers to use the site. For those wishing to, we also offer both advertising and premium business subscriptions which provide more exposure and brand page management benefits. We reserve the right to suspend any of those paid or premium activities for businesses violating the terms above.

Call me romantic if you like, but I can’t see much wrong with that kind of approach. It’s fair to the business that doesn’t want to fork over money to the site, to the business that does and to the financial prospects of the site itself. It’s also infinitely more useful to the site visitor, whom one would assume is the top priority for all parties in question.

So, Yelp, ResellerRatings.com, RipOffReport.com or any of the others that might fall into the pay-to-play review sites, you’re welcome to the above. We’d be tickled if you used that approach. We don’t even need credit for it. All the payback we need is the knowledge there’s a better way to do business here and someone is following it.

Did I miss anything? What would you add? Are you being held hostage by one of these sites? Share your story in the comments. (But please remember to report your situation as honestly and fairly as possible. Libel and slander online are still libel and slander.)

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://paradisesocial.wordpress.com/ Mike Poynton

    Nice post, Jason. It caught my eye in my RSS feed. 90% of my clients are in the tourism industry abroad. TripAdvisor.com is their “Holy Grail”. I, too, have been asked repeatedly about removing negative reviews by panicky clients. In most cases, I recommend they leave them as they are and turn them into something positive (“Turn that frown upside down”). If the reviewer truly had a negative experience, that negative review can be an opportunity for a business to show it’s real mettle and integrity. Acknowledging the error, apologizing and offering to compensate for it can be an incredibly powerful marketing tool because it’s a win/win for everyone. The business looks good for paying attention to its customer and not trying to sweep something under the rug. The customer feels good because the business is paying attention to them. It’s inevitable that bad days will occur, mistakes will be made. While that can’t be a frequent occurrence, everyone surely can identify with having an occasional bad day. It’s how one goes about making up for it that will win the hearts, minds and advocacy of your customer(s).

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Exactly how I would approach, Mike. Unfortunately, there are some sites out there that won’t even let you do that without paying for the privilege. That’s what we’ve got to get rid of.

  • http://twitter.com/cksyme Chris Syme

    Review sites . Your TOS are very straight forward, but I think one thing is missing–only from my personal experience. The emphasis is usually on fake positive reviews, but fake negative reviews can kill a company. Yelp, for one, has an awful policy in dealing with negative reviews. I had a client that had trouble with Yelp and after several interactions with them, they decided to just kick out every review posted by a first-time reviewer. My client’s fans, who were true users of the product, went to Yelp trying to post positive reviews, and their legitimate reviews were filtered while fake negative reviews were left up by “experienced reviewers”. Frustrating. How about something like this:
    Should we discover evidence that any individuals are posting fake negative reviews, we will post a disclaimer alerting viewers to the fact that all reviews during this time period may not be legitimate.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Great add, Chris!

  • http://twitter.com/ckilgs Craig Kilgore

    Great post, Jason. There’s been a lot on this topic as of late and I predict we will only hear more about it as time goes on. As marketers, we focus a lot on protecting businesses and their reputations on the web (by nature) but I feel more needs to go into educating consumers and the impact they can have on a business.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, Craig.

  • Dara Khajavi

    I believe that having real and honest reviews and ratings is very important for a business. How else can you improve? This being said, I completely agree with your posts. Your list of suggestions are very helpful. 

  • http://twitter.com/hunterboyle Hunter Boyle

    Really like your take on this subject, Jason. I’ve dealt with this from a few angles — from working with a large company that wanted to gin up fake positive reviews, to being blackmailed by a review site (at the same company), to trying to help friends’ single-location independent businesses get a fair shake and seeing the filtering and sales pitch in action.

    I’ve been on Yelp for years, and understand the fine line they have to deal with when it comes to fake reviews, but I’m not a fan of how they’ve handled some legitimate issues, like hiding sincere reviews for a business with a small, long-term client base that’s not your typical Yelper. Once those reviews are filtered, there’s no recourse, so real fans who want to spread the word and support a small biz get shut out.

    No system is perfect, but if a biz can back up its claim, it should be able to set the record straight. The current system has too many holes. Let us know when that King of Ratings and Reviews nomination page goes live. You’ve got my vote.

  • Lisa Sullivan

    For me personally, I do not use Yelp because I simply don’t like their practices thanks to the negative stories I have heard about their business model. My idea of “reviewing” a business or product is usually leaving a tip within my Foursquare check-in (or via Foursquare “tips” too). The only in-depth online review I’ve ever left is one for the owners of the vacation home we stayed at in the OBX last summer. We had SUCH a wonderful experience, we had to write about it so others would get a chance to enjoy that house too. Other than that, I might write a blog post of a positive experience every now and then too.

    Why don’t I personally leave reviews? Eh. For me, it’s time. I don’t have the time at that moment to write one (nor do I have a keyboard; hunt & peck doesn’t work for me on the smartphone). So, I’ll either leave a quick tip (“Try the cheese dip. It’s out of this world!”) or I’ll blog about it later…maybe.

    With that said, I say this because while I may be in the minority, it would still behoove businesses to encourage reviews of their products and services by those that will take the time to write the review. And I really like your TOS above. That pretty much covers all the basics. I love the idea of “hey, if you (business owner) agree to our TOS, we’ll even provide promotional materials to help you encourage your customers.” Brilliant. If a business can’t provide incentive to their customers for providing a review – positive or negative – the least the review site could do is provide a way to help that business promote for the review. It’s a win-win for both the review site and the business. Although, I still think customers should be rewarded for taking the time to make the review, good or bad. But anyway….

    Today’s businesses have to monitor their reputations beyond “At the Chamber event last week, I overheard so-and-so talking to so-and-so about that awful massage they received at our business causing them bruising. I wish we had known. We could’ve rectified that sooner (with an offer to return for a free 30 minute massage, facial, etc. for a future visit).” What customers/clients say online now is so crucial. Businesses need to prepare for it. 

    Another GREAT post, Jason…and my long-winded response. Oh well. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Saxbeh Scott Saxby

    I have found that incentivising reviews for smaller businesses is key to achieving results. Customers leaving a negative review tend to be emotionally fuelled and motivated to leave a less than glowing review. On the other hand, customers that have had an adequate or positive experience are less likely to make the effort of pushing through registration barriers to submit a review.

    The incentive should be provided to balance the customer’s effort in leaving their review, not reward them for the review’s sentiment. Most review sites have several barriers resulting in customers giving up mid-process unless they are truly angry and are motivated to endure the registration and submit the review.

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