The internet has infiltrated just about every aspect of our lives — from dating to searching for a job, or searching for accommodation.

We also use online reviews to determine whether or not a product or service deserves our money.

Indeed, as many as three quarters of all social media users say they read online reviews before making a purchase.

The Council of Small Business recently dealt with a case where a union tried to harm a business through negative online reviews.

“It does happen,” chief executive Peter Strong said.

“Someone will get a bee in their bonnet, or someone will just target a business for some reason.

“It’s got nothing to do with how good or bad that business is, but it’s got all to do with personality or about ideology, and that’s where we’re concerned.”

 

‘You don’t know whether the customer’s actually been here or not’

 

Fake online reviews can generate a lot of stress for business owners when it is unclear who wrote the review.

Hairdressing salon owner Michael Napoli says that being on the wrong end of a fake online review gave him a lot of anxiety.

“Online reviews are really difficult because if you haven’t got online reviews people don’t even walk in the door,” he said.

“They’re bad because [you] don’t know whether the customer’s actually been here or not; it could be a competitor that’s put the review.

“And then getting them off is impossible.”

Of course, a natural reaction to a particularly negative review that a business owner believes to be fake is to want to take it down immediately.

But that is currently not possible — no matter how much reputational damage it is causing.

A business can, however, complain about a review to the website, which usually ignores such requests and bins it.

 

Fake positive reviews also ‘reasonably prevalent’

 

Fake glowing reviews about a business are also a big problem.

This is where shoppers can get a raw deal — particularly travellers, or anyone looking for a personal service such as a haircut.

In some recent overseas cases businesses have been found to direct employees to write glowing reviews, or to respond to bad reviews with counterarguments or something positive.

 

Consumers and businesses must be on guard

 

So, what’s more potent for the individual or organization trying to inflict harm on a business — posting a nasty fake review, or lavishing a business with praise?

A recent study by the Stevens Institute of Technology in the US found a mixed strategy of self-injecting fake positive reviews, and injecting fake negative reviews about competitors, was the most effective way for attackers to overtake their competitors in terms of visibility in online searches.

It all raises a bit of a philosophical dilemma that goes to the heart of all online content:

As the internet evolves, and businesses and consumers rely on it more, how should regulators ensure that the content within it stays credible?

The problem when it comes to online reviews is they are helpful for consumers, and can promote businesses that are providing an excellent service, but they also create opportunities for those who seek to do harm.

So where does this leave online shoppers, and website searchers?

For shoppers it means there is no guarantee the online review they are reading is real. There is a good chance it is genuine, but there are no guarantees.

For businesses, it means they need to remain on guard.

Perhaps a consolation for business owners fretting about a particularly bad fake review is that the consumer or reader knows there’s no guarantee it’s for real either.

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