Back in 2007 I wrote a blog post about the importance of influence for brands online. The research, published by OMD in late 2007, showed that amongst our European neighbours, Brits are the most likely (63%) to offer an unprompted opinion online and we are also the most likely to pass a negative comment (26%). Back then, the report stated that 38% of UK online purchasers take other customers’ opinions into account before purchasing.
It would be interesting to see what impact the intervening years have had upon customer behaviour. My ‘reasonably’ well informed hunch is that the importance of influence is growing exponentially, and with it, the power of the websites that gate-keep the user reviews.
The commercialization of the ‘influence marketplace’ brings threats as well as opportunities. Take, for example, Yelp.com, the leading user review website in the USA who are being sued by a small veterinary practice in California. Greg Perrault, who runs the Cat’s and Dogs animal hospital is suing Yelp because when he asked them to remove an outdated, negative review from their website they retorted by saying that they would, if his business would advertise with them. If he agreed to advertise with Yelp.com, then not only would the aforementioned negative review be removed, but in the future all negative reviews would have reduced visibility and be hidden from search engine results.
Whilst one may hope this is an isolated case, the law firm representing Mr Perrault, has indicated that they have been contacted by scores of other businesses that have been approached similarly and that there could be many thousands of businesses affected.
What this case shows, aside from possible commercial malpractice, is the power of the review sites in controlling the flow of commerce, brand reputation and customer opinion.
To some small degree we have experienced the frustrating power of review websites with the web’s leading App store where we have a client smart phone App featured. The App in question is in a highly competitive marketplace. Obviously you can’t hope to have all great reviews, but we’ve begun to see what we believe are suspicious reviews. Many just say ‘Don’t use this App, use this one instead’, whilst others provide feedback about services that the App doesn’t even provide.
At the App store there is a link alongside each review allowing you to contact the authorities to request its removal. This feature is similar to the OS crash reporting mechanism ‘Your word processor has stopped responding, would you like to send us a notification?’ In a vain hope that the action may have some affect you submit the form into the ether, never to be heard from again.
So, the negative, truth impossible reviews continue to appear at the App store. At best, this is simply frustrating for us as we’re left to rely on the positive reviews and the good sense of new customers. At worse though, the lack of proper moderation is indicative of a wider trend of abuse in the user review marketplace.
If this is true then we’re likely to see flame wars between competitors in the ‘no mans land’ of the review sites, with those with greater brand reach not only applying their own resources but also leveraging their army of brand advocates to flame perceived rivals. In this scenario, the innocent public will lose faith in the review mechanism as a reliable source of influence and revert to other means to communicate their opinion and many, many more legal cases.