Consumer ratings and reviews, such as those seen on Amazon make the difference between prospects and customers and directly affect the online reputation of companies and products. Individual reviews combine to provide a community consensus that prospects use to make their final buying decision between two or more products. In the end, the difference between a four-star rating and a five-star rating makes all the difference to a company’s online reputation and directly affects the bottom line.
While this article uses Amazon as a primary example, the same practices can be altered and used with other review sites as well.
The unfortunate fact is, Amazon reviews are rife with ‘shills’. For review purposes, a ‘shill’ is a person who pretends to have no association with a product or service – but in reality does, and who espouses positive reviews for that product or service. Shill reviews are intended to skew ratings in favor of the products or services they represent. While Amazon and sites like it do their best to eliminate shills, they cannot be totally eliminated. In an attempt to add more trust to their reviews, Amazon has created a special category of reviewers called ‘Amazon Vine’ reviewers. Amazon Vine reviewers are meant to be more trusted than other reviewers and are chosen based on the trust they have earned in the Amazon community for writing accurate and insightful reviews, however even this program cannot guard against professional shills whose primary job is to fool Amazon.
Attacking Competitors using Amazon Reviews
Many companies use Amazon reviews as a weapon against their competitors in an effort to damage their online reputation. Knowing that the product with the highest review usually wins, they hire shill reviewers to write false positive reviews about their products and in many cases to write scathing negative reviews about their competitors products. To the prospective customer these reviews appear perfectly legitimate; some even contain intentional spelling errors to appear more realistic. Faced with a choice of using the same unethical practices their competitors are using or taking the high road and losing market share, many companies are at a loss.
Ethical vs. Shill Reviews
There are ethical solutions to combat shill reviews and the online reputation problems they cause. The Amazon Vine program allows vendors to submit products for review by their Vine reviewers, but does not influence the reviews. Because crafty professional shills have infiltrated the program they are not completely trustworthy.
Providing the product (or service) is in fact excellent, prospective users of a product can be contacted and asked to try the product for free. When running your own review program, In return for the free product, they agree to write an Amazon review, blog review, or other review. They also agree to submit all reviews through a third-party review management service before submitting their Amazon or other review. If their review is found to be balanced, even if it contains constructive but true and informative criticism, it can then be submitted for inclusion in reviews by the consumer using their own account.
If a company has existing clients, for example those that have provided testimonials for the its products or services in the past, those individuals can be asked to share their reviews with others on Amazon, by blogging, or providing blog comments to existing blog product reviews. For companies with an existing client base, blog contests can be used to motivate individuals to provide reviews. The reviewer writes a review, submits the web address of the review to the review management service, and is entered to win a prize if their review is randomly chosen during a drawing.
In this way shill reviews can be counteracted using ethical means. It is worth repeating that the product or service being reviewed is, in fact, superior to the competition.
If a company has existing positive reviews and testimonials and the contact information for the individuals who created the testimonials, a blog contest or review contest is a good first step.
If no existing ‘house list’ is available, reviewers must be located. To do this, opt-in mailing lists that align with the preferred reviewer profile can be purchased or rented. An email inviting the prospective reviewer including review process stipulations is crafted and sent. Responses are tallied and managed, product shipped and reviewers contacted after a pre-determined time and asked for their reviews. Another option is to use blogging contest sites, however the degree of control over the content of the review is lost when using this method.
Asking the Right Questions
One secret to getting good answers is asking the right questions. Providing a reviewing guide is very helpful in channeling responses in the preferred direction. For example, rather than asking ‘did you like the product’, ask more specific questions that reflect the positive attributes of the product or service. If your product is easier to install than that of the competition, ask ‘Please describe the installation process’.
A positive Amazon review can make the difference between winning or losing in the marketplace. While more difficult and time-consuming, managing ethical reviews is a win-win process for both companies wishing to protect their online reputation and consumers who rely on balanced reviews to make buying decisions.