Opinion

Charlie Mullins: Lack of policy has left us with a lawless online reviews space

4 min read

26 October 2015

It’s the late seventies and although I don’t know it yet, I’ve just founded what will become London’s largest independent plumbing company. Short on cash and unable to take an ad in the local paper, I used the only marketing tool I had available – word of mouth.

Back to the future, and even though we don’t quite yet have hover-boards, the term word of mouth has evolved from its once literal meaning, to include reviews and opinions posted on the World Wide Web.

In theory, online reviews are a great way to build a reputation for your business. However, as in most industries, there are people looking to make a quick buck – ruining it for the rest of us, straight shooters.

The lack of basic policing surrounding online reviews has left us with a lawless place, where online cowboys can get away with doing pretty much anything they please. For as little as £3, these fraudsters offer to post false reviews, promising a glowing, five-star recommendation or alternatively, a poor review for an unsuspecting competitor. 

This really boils my blood. Hard working and honest businesses that are going above and beyond to deliver a quality service, are having hard-earned reputations unfairly tarnished by lazy sods that no doubt cut every corner possible.

Fortunately, I could afford to fork out the cash and my search was successful in uncovering the identities of three people who posted libellous and anonymous reviews about Pimlico Plumbers on Yelp. Now some other fraudsters have poked the bear (Amazon), I doubt it will be long before we see some more justice delivered.

The online retail giant has announced it is taking legal action against more than 1,000 people, claiming its brand reputation IS being damaged by misleading and inauthentic reviews. I normally don’t side with the big dog in the fight, but this time I find myself hoping it succeeds – it might just scare these cowards into earning an honest living.

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What’s so frustrating about the situation is that the solution is so blindingly obvious. All reviews should carry proof that the reviewer has actually purchased the product or service they are reviewing – it’s common sense, but common sense ain’t that common. We used to use Trustpilot for our online reviews, but they refused to force reviewers to prove they were legitimate, so we dumped them.

You would think proof of purchase would be the absolute minimum standard required before someone could go onto a public website and write what they please about a business, but in my experience that’s not the case.

Businesses should also be able to sue review sites for the content each allow on sites, when it is obviously libellous and designed to attack hard-earned reputations, rather than being a genuine and honest review.

Online reviews can be a great force for good – but there need to be rules to ensure they are true, otherwise there’s no credibility in the whole system.