It is an indisputable fact that online reviews can influence consumer views about a business and affect his purchase decision. However, the current online review system is sadly inadequate despite of the trust consumers placed in these online reviews. These online reviews can also have serious impacts on the reputation of the merchants. Polarisation bias, censorship issues, fake reviews, and privacy control issues are just a few of the flaws that severely affect the credibility of online reviews as a tool for effective online reputation management that is critical for today’s businesses.
Most online reviews are systematically biased — they tend to over-represent the more extreme views, resulting in a distribution of reviews that is highly polarised. Consumers who leave reviews either love the establishment so much that they give it a glowing review or they hated it so much that they leave reviews to warn others of the disappointing experience that they had. The majority of the consumers who have moderate views will most likely not leave a review as they find it not worth their time or effort.
This makes it difficult to draw a proper conclusion from online reviews. In simple economics: consumers can perform a cost-benefit comparison to decide whether or not to leave an online review. Naturally, only customers who perceive benefits that outweigh the time and effort involved in leaving a review will do so. Customers with moderate views are often discouraged from submitting reviews as they perceive little benefit worthwhile sharing their opinions online.
Fake reviews threaten the usefulness and credibility of online reviews, yet they are often utilised to improve business visibility. Competitors may also pose as disgruntled customers to create false negative reviews or a business might attempt to write its own glowing reviews to create false positive reviews. Such fake reviews can lead to confusion as to the accuracy of online reviews as a proxy for genuine online reputation. According to one study, around 16% of the restaurant reviews they analysed on the website Yelp were found to be dubious.
There are conflicts of interest inherent to the business model of review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, where there is an incentive to sell advertising, often in the form of boosted positive reviews, to the very same companies being reviewed. These review sites filter the reviews and place themselves in a position of conflict of interest when they benefit more by generating positive reviews than negative ones. Consumers may also be persuaded to submit positive reviews by merchants through incentives offered conditional upon positive reviews.
Reviews submitted by consumers often reveal private information about the users themselves. These information may comprise of data such as their demographics, purchasing habits, preferences, and vulnerabilities. However, this information belongs to the review platform and the customers do not have any control over it. They have little control over the advertisements they receive or to whom their information is sold to. Severe cases of privacy breach such as the Facebook scandal, “Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles and built models to exploit what they knew about these people and target their inner demons”.
References: Luca, M. and Zervas, G. (2016). Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud | Management Science.[online] PubsOnLine.