May 26, 2016

Fake reviews, vendetta scores are killing the ratings economy

BYShrabonti Bagchi

Once you are forced to believe that even one review on Zomato or Tripadvisor has been paid for, you start suspecting every review and rating. It’s like eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden — once your eyes have been opened to dishonesty, you can’t un-see that. Every experience thereafter is coloured by the knowledge that dishonesty exists. It’s a loss of innocence.
Unfortunately, the ratings economy — that’s what I’m going to call the monetisation of platforms that provide value to new customers by showing them ratings and reviews from past customers — is facing just such a crisis. Story after story in the past few months has pointed us towards the fact that this is a system that has been heavily gamed by unscrupulous users and, in some cases, by greedy companies themselves who want to take advantage of the ‘social media influencer’-led digital marketing campaigns, and not always honestly.
The trouble is not with digital marketing, which is and should be a free and fair method of getting your product out there without spending obscene sums of money on mainstream media advertising. After all, let’s just accept that monetising your website by aggregating reviews is a valid business model and is here to stay because monetisation creates jobs and boosts the economy — no matter how much we may want to wish it away for the sake of nostalgia for a utopian past.
The problem is with the dishonesty of certain companies and individuals who want to manipulate the system using fake profiles, paid-for reviews and undisclosed agenda-driven campaigns. They choke the very system they are trying to game. Soon, there won’t be any ratings economy left to manipulate because the whole thing would become pointless anyway.
In a recent blog post titled ‘Trust But Verify’, Zomato co-founder and COO Pankaj Chaddah wrote about the company’s policies regarding “solicited reviews” after “star reviewer” Prateek Dham alleged in a Facebook post that he had been banned from the platform because “Zomato did not reap any monetary benefit” from his reviews.
According to Zomato, this is a false allegation and Dham was, in fact, trying to make money on the side by soliciting restaurants to pay him to write positive reviews. On the whole, the junta seems to be with Zomato on this one as it has backed up its assertions with adequate proof in the form of email screenshots.
Even more egregious, in my opinion, is the attempt by powerful groups to bully brands and companies by downrating them in order to “teach them a lesson”. This happened with SnapDeal during the Aamir Khan fiasco and recently, a particularly vicious example of this form of bullying came to my notice.
Language wars are not new in Bengaluru, and there are several powerful pro-Kannada groups on social media whose stated aim is to promote Kannada language and culture (a worthy aim) but who unfortunately see no harm in arm-twisting people or using threats of violence to achieve their ends. Recently, a pub/restaurant in Bangalore was targeted by this group because its DJ refused to play Kannada music. Now, no matter what we think personally, as a private establishment the pub has every right to play whatever kind of music it chooses (as long as it does not defy existing laws about decibel levels and quiet hours). When the pub owners refused to give in, this semi-vigilante group went on a rampage on social media, getting its followers to downrate the establishment on its Facebook page and Google listings, and boasting about the fact that the pub’s ratings had come down from 4.5 to 2.5.
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This kind of manipulation of ratings and reviews is not a problem only in India. Recently, The Guardian wrote about how TripAdvisor was facing similar issues, with its reliability being called into question because of concerted efforts of marketers to give establishments better ratings. In the UK, this led to the creation of a Twitter campaign under #noreceiptnoreview asking the website to insist that users can only post a review if they provide a scanned receipt.
“The growing unease over the validity of reviews on websites like TripAdvisor comes as evidence mounts that the system is being exploited by unscrupulous companies and individuals,” The Guardian wrote.
Fake reviews are just as common on e-commerce sites like Amazon and Flipkart. Even as we speak, there are “reviews” being written of journalist Rana Ayyub’s controversial book on the Gujarat riots without any of the reviewers peeking into the book itself (in fact, this is an interesting case study for the complex dynamics of ratings wars, because other users have openly declared that they are giving the book five stars to counter the low ratings bestowed by the ‘Rana is a #presstitute’ group).

On sites like Amazon, around 30% reviews are fake  “But is the rate of “false, misleading, and inauthentic customer reviews” truly small? Previous research estimates that 30% of product reviews are fake. That seems pretty big—enough to have real influence in a product’s overall ratings, and higher than the projected rate of fake online reviews for other things like hotels and restaurants (10% to 20%).”

However, fake reviews are simply not as much a problem for Amazon and Flipkart because their primary job is to sell products, and reviews are important but not central to their business models. However, for sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Zomato, reliability and trustworthiness are the very cornerstones of their businesses. Their revenue models depend on creating valuable user-generated content for consumers. People don’t just use them to find products or places, they also need them to make informed decisions about how to spend their money. Given that, fake ratings are like killer weeds choking the life out of the very ecosystem they thrive in.
This is a serious problem, and these websites need to be absolutely ruthless in tackling it if they don’t want to see their businesses go down the drain. They have already lost a considerable amount of trust, and if they don’t act now to kill the beast, they risk making themselves completely irrelevant.
Lead image: Pixabay

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Shrabonti Bagchi is a writer of FactorDaily.