A 2013 survey reports that 88 percent of consumers say online product reviews influence their buying decisions, with 90 percent swayed by positive reviews and 86 percent driven away from a product by negative reviews. This is big, and in recent months, the integrity of online reviews made headlines when Amazon.com filed a suit against more than 1,000 account holders at Fiverr.com. The mega online retailer claimed the writers accepted money to post fraudulent product reviews.

Amazon has taken action against fake reviews in the past, targeting sites such as buyamazonreviews.com and buyreviewsnow.com that offered, at a price, to post glowing reviews of a seller’s product. This newest suit, filed in October, is aimed at the writers themselves. Freelancers post their services, often small writing and art projects, on Fiverr, charging $5 a gig. Amazon’s suit alleges some of these gigs involved posting phony reviews, often written by the product’s seller to boost a product’s rating.

Online reviews can be problematic. Yelp and Trip Advisor have had their own troubles with reviews. Restaurants and hotels have been accused of writing their own five-star reviews. Conversely, a disgruntled employee can do some serious damage to a business’ rating on these sites.  Even savvy consumers can be misled.

Amazon’s action brings the practice of hiring writers to promote products, products they most likely never tested, out of the shadows. Newly enlightened consumers may be more skeptical of over-the-top reviews. If Amazon prevails in the suit, freelance writers will be less willing to participate in the ruse of posting fake reviews. The risks certainly outweigh the $5 paycheck.

Obviously, posting fake reviews or paying someone to write a good review on your behalf is a breach of good business ethics. The Amazon suit raises the possibility of legal problems if you go this route. Legal issues aside, it is just bad business to dupe your customers. Companies that engage in this practice are eventually outed, and they will lose any goodwill they’ve managed to earn with the public.

For the small business owner, it is worthwhile to keep tabs on the reviews of your own enterprise. Do a search of your business and see what comes up. If you do come across a negative review, respond with understanding. Offer the reviewer an opportunity to contact you privately with concerns.  It is okay to ask customers to provide feedback and direct them to specific review sites. The best way to control your online reputation is to maintain a company website and keep it updated with fresh content. An active social media presence will also tell prospective customers who you are and how you conduct your business

This article was written by Gillian Burdett for Small Business Pulse


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