Need to know
- The business offered the customer $500 on condition that they take down the negative review and never criticise them again
- The ACCC has taken a number of businesses to court in recent years for manipulating customer reviews to their own ends
- Google says its policies prohibit such tactics and that it blocked about 55 million reviews in 2020 alone
It would be nice to think that the internet is evolving into a more trustworthy environment, especially when it comes to customer reviews. But it still has a long way to go.
It seems some businesses will do just about anything to achieve a five-star rating on one of the most prominent online review platforms, Google reviews.
We've seen cases of businesses from dentists to car dealers all but begging customers to grace them with the coveted five-star Google tick of approval, whether or not they actually deserve it.
And we've also seen cases of businesses offering discounts and vouchers to customers who post reviews, which could be seen as an incentive to post a positive review.
Crossing the line and outright rewarding customers for positive reviews is a practice that at least one former major business, True Value Solar, was obliged to scrap at the behest of the ACCC way back in 2016.
Money on offer to kill negative reviews
Now there seems to be a new tactic in town – offering customers cash to take down a negative Google review, while wresting a promise from them to never again speak ill of the business (effectively a kind of gag order).
We recently documented a case of a removalist company that received a scathing review from a customer – and then turned around and offered her $500 to take it down.
I feel like Google reviews are what keeps these companies honest and by buying people off they are cheating the system
"On the day of the move, I called the office three times to say, 'why are these guys so angry?' This is awful," the woman told us. "Why are they bullying me into paying extra for plastic wrapping and the like? It was clear that I was not having a good experience. And yet they didn't follow up until I'd left the Google review. I feel like a good company would have followed up based on my calls of distress on the day."
The customer didn't take the money or remove her review, but the experience did deepen her scepticism regarding the value and reliability of Google reviews.
"I feel like Google reviews are what keeps these companies honest and by buying people off they are cheating the system," the woman says. "The whole reason I had such a bad experience is because I checked the reviews and they were all positive. Now I realise they just buy off the bad ones."
A consumer was offered $500 to take down a negative Google review about a removalist.
'Not a perfect signal'
Adrian Camilleri, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Technology Sydney, says consumers should run their own authenticity checks when considering online reviews.
"Online consumer reviews are a good initial signal of quality and value," he says. "However, they are not a perfect signal.
"For example, an average of five out of five stars could signal a great product or company, but it could also be the result of selective and biased reporting. By contrast, an average of two out of five stars could signal a poor product or company, but it could also be the result of malicious fake reviews.
"Especially for important purchases, I strongly recommend that consumers research beyond online consumer reviews, which are often from anonymous strangers. This additional research could be in the form of seeking reviews from known experts or learning the opinions of trusted groups or friends."
An average of five out of five stars could signal a great product or company, but it could also be the result of selective and biased reportingAdrian Camilleri, University of Technology Sydney
Alternatives to Google reviews
Camilleri says he too hired a removalist recently.
"I checked the Google reviews score and eliminated a few options that had very low scores and terrible reports. However, to make the final decision, I asked for help on my community Facebook page and ultimately went with a company that was highly recommended by one individual.
"Even though I did not personally know this person, I trusted them because I could see their Facebook profile page and helpful history on the community page."
Manipulating to mislead and deceive
Despite the importance that many businesses continue to place on them, the ACCC agrees that online reviews should be viewed sceptically.
"There are various ways in which businesses may manipulate online reviews to mislead or deceive consumers," an ACCC spokesperson says. "For example, a business may post fake positive reviews about their own goods or services, or offer incentives to consumers to post positive reviews or remove negative reviews. Businesses may also post fake negative reviews about their competitors."
Businesses called out
The regulator has taken action against a number of businesses for such manipulations. In July 2020, the online tasking platform Service Seeking was ordered to pay a $600,000 fine for allowing businesses that used its service to write their own positive reviews and giving customers three days to respond to them. If they didn't, Seeking Service posted them anyway. (About 17,000 were published without any customer contributions.)
A business may post fake positive reviews about their own goods or services, or offer incentives to consumers to post positive reviews or remove negative reviewsACCC spokesperson
In August 2020, HealthEngine, which described itself at the time as "Australia's largest online health marketplace", copped a $2.9 million fine for failing to publish about 17,000 negative reviews and doctoring about 3000 others to get rid of negative comments. (The fine was also for sharing personal patient information with private health insurance brokers without the patients' consent.)
In July 2018, Meriton Property Services was fined $3 million for preventing potentially negative reviews from being published on TripAdvisor. And in November 2017, Perth-based home building company Aveling Homes was penalised $380,000 for running its own review sites that it falsely claimed were independent, and for blocking bad reviews.
A five-star review may be subject to a host of manipulations.
Google: 'We take swift action'
A Google spokesperson told us that the company goes to great lengths to keep fraudulent reviews off its platform. Google says it blocked about 55 million reviews, removed three million fake business profiles and disabled 610,000 user accounts for violating its policies in 2020 alone.
"We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google," the spokesperson said.
"Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we do not tolerate actions that attempt to mislead people. When we find such behaviour, we take swift action ranging from warnings to account suspension."
Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we do not tolerate actions that attempt to mislead peopleGoogle spokesperson
That may well be true, but the manipulation of online reviews continues, which is why we recommend internet users do their own investigative work.
Putting online reviews to the test
The ACCC recommends people take the following steps:
- Be wary of positive reviews or testimonials on a business's own website – they're less likely to be credible and may have been written in exchange for some kind of reward.
- Get your information from multiple sources, including reviews from more trustworthy and independent sources than the business itself. Third-party review platforms are more likely to have quality assurance processes in place to identify and remove fake reviews.
- Check multiple reviews and comments about the same business. Look out for any irregularities, such as a spike in positive reviews over a short period of time or multiple reviews with a similar tone and vocabulary, as they may have been written by the same person.
- Be wary of businesses or review platforms with overwhelmingly high reviews. This may be a case of fake positive reviews or the deletion of genuine negative reviews.