Analysis from consumer advocacy group CHOICE has found that around 15% of all online reviews are fake. Yet consumers regularly rely on review platform sites such as TripAdvisor, Zomato and Product Review to decide where to sleep, where to eat and what to buy. They expect these platforms to provide full and frank consumer feedback.
Shoppers need to watch out for reviews that seem to be from different people, but are suspiciously similar, and spikes in positive or negative reviews that are contrary to earlier feedback. Businesses should also be aware that fake reviews and manipulation of reviews may breach the law.
Two Australian businesses were recently prosecuted over their use of online reviews. In the first case, the Court found that the operator of a serviced apartment chain breached the Australian Consumer Law by minimising negative reviews on the online accommodation review site, TripAdvisor. The site offers ‘Review Express’ whereby guests allow an accommodation operator to give their details to TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor then emails the guest for a review of their stay.
The operator had deliberately tried to minimise the number of negative reviews by not providing TripAdvisor with guest email addresses or invalidating email addresses by adding extra letters so that the guest never received the review request from TripAdvisor. This often happened when guests experienced poor amenities, like a broken lift or no hot water.
By minimising the number of negative reviews, a more favourable impression of the accommodation was created on TripAdvisor than was actually the case. The Court found this likely to mislead the public as to the nature, characteristics and purpose of those services.
In another case, a building business was fined AUD380,000 for misrepresenting that its review websites were independent and affiliated with the impartial review platform www.productreview.com.au. It also held back negative reviews. A manager involved in the design and operation of the sites was fined AUD25,000 for his role in the misrepresentations.
CHOICE recommends consumers do their research and check reviews about a business from different sources. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warns against:
- Encouraging family and friends to write reviews about your business without disclosing their personal connection.
- Writing reviews when you have not experienced the good/service or do not genuinely hold the opinion expressed.
- Soliciting others to write reviews if they have not experienced your good/service.
Businesses concerned about possible breaches of the misleading or deceptive conduct provisions of the Australian Consumer Law whether through the use of reviews or otherwise, should seek legal advice from Phillips Ormonde Fitzpatrick Lawyers.