If Your Business Relies on User Reviews, You Need a New Strategy

One of the major forms of social proof that marketers rely on is being systematically destroyed. I’m talking about user reviews, and if you rely on reviews to either buy or sell, you need a new business strategy right now.

The destruction of user-review reliability is getting so bad that it was the topic of a recent episode of the podcast Reply All. This podcast centers on Amazon reviews, which we all have come to depend on for advice and recommendations over the last decade.

The episode outlined how businesses are constantly working to game the Amazon search algorithm. Early on, companies just hired cheap offshore labor to create fake Amazon accounts and put their products into shopping carts. They didn’t have to actually buy the product, they just had to show interest. Of course, Amazon wised up and gave its algorithm a quick tweak that killed the effectiveness of that strategy.

And that’s when the siege on user reviews began. Believe it or not, some companies will now buy their own products, ship them to random addresses, and then post glowing reviews. Recipients of these random gift packages scratch their heads and declare, “I didn’t order this.” In another variation, Facebook hosts different Amazon “review clubs” where companies post offers for free products in exchange for a good review.

Why would companies go down this path? Simple. The cost of the merchandise pales in comparison to the payoff of securing a high-ranking in Amazon search results.

The bottom line is that consumers are starting to lose confidence in online reviews. However, there are strategies you can use both as a business and as a buyer to get honest reviews that deliver good, trustworthy guidance.

Finding honest, valuable reviews

When you’re browsing a site like Amazon with many reviews for a single product, seek out the three-star reviews. Obviously, these reviews are not being funded by the company, and the writers will have honest comments that are both positive and critical of the item you’re considering—and that’s what you want when buying something for your personal use or for your business. No person or product is perfect, so it’s great to know what downsides you may face when you’re spending your money.

If you’re a business owner, encouraging reviews from your customers is a good business practice. Getting the word out about your business is great and keeps you and your team on your toes. But take it one step further—when you encourage reviews, also encourage your customers to be totally honest.

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Use a good third-party reviewer

Solid, third-party reviewers are establishing themselves in this niche, and with the erosion of faith that consumers are experiencing with “user reviews,” I believe businesses will find it increasingly beneficial to be reviewed on sites like Shifu, which features product reviews, comparisons, and buying guides.

Pioneers in this area, like Consumer Reports, have already established the credibility of third-party review services. Savvy online shoppers will look for comparisons that outline both the positive and negative features of any item being considered.

One of the major credibility-building factors of a review site is the fact that the website’s long-term success is directly connected to the honesty and usefulness of its reviews. Let’s face it, most of the reviews on Amazon are penned by users with cryptic screen names, so we seldom know the person making the claims. And—if I can make a little confession here—except for book reviewers on Amazon, I’m always a little suspicious of writers who have “top reviewer” status. How can they have that much free time to buy and review so many unrelated items?

Would they really be writing that many reviews if they weren’t being compensated in some fashion? I suppose some would, but it’s likely there are some rotten apples in the bunch, as well. I need to mention that Amazon has stated: “Inauthentic reviews made up less than 1% of all reviews on Amazon last month, but even one is unacceptable.” However, in some categories, experts believe that figure is more like 50%.

It’s too bad that user reviews are being undermined like this, because they have helped build the reputation of many businesses over the years. But the times, they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan sang.

The important thing is for business owners to recognize this trend. User reviews are becoming less valuable as social proof. You need be working on your strategy to counteract the impact this will have on your business in the coming years.

RELATED: How to Effectively Manage Your Company’s Online Reviews

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