The Complicated Ethics of Reviews & Ratings

Businesses are being blackmailed ... Is there a solution?

by Jason Falls |

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.)


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).