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Fake online reviews could be made illegal

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What happened?

Authorities are trying to clean up fake reviews on websites, to stop undeserving companies getting a good reputation online.

That practice isn’t new, but the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK has cracked down by rapping the knuckles of one online marketing firm, Total SEO & Marketing, which has revealed to have written 800 false reviews promoting 86 small companies, including mechanics and gardeners.

CMA hasn’t fined Total SEO, but has instead forced the company to sign an undertaking promising to stop the practice and take down the fake reviews it has written. It’s not the first company to be targeted by the CMA: in February, the authority took similar action against several other online businesses, including Checkatrade and Care Opinion.

The government clearly thinks the problem is serious because despite the lack of fines or other punishment against companies such as Total SEO, the Department for business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is reportedly considering making posting fake reviews illegal.

This would allow the government to fine businesses under consumer protection rules if they continue to post false reviews or refuse to take down existing ones. However, this is easier said than done because it can be difficult to establish which reviews are false and which are real. That said, if one or two high-profile cases incur tough penalties, it may be enough to dissuade the worst offenders.

The British government isn’t alone in taking action. Amazon last year sued the online job site Fiverr for posts that offered online reviews for products sold on Amazon, and TripAdvisor now has a dedicated team that roots out fake reviews on its site.

Additionally, the Dutch authorities recently handed a court order to Google demanding the IP addresses behind fake reviews accusing a local nursery of child abuse. Google initially said the reviews were covered by freedom of speech laws and refused to remove them from search results or its own Google Maps.

How will affect you?

Like most internet regulation, this law will be tough to enforce but, hopefully, the CMA action will discourage online marketing firms from taking such dodgy routes to promote their clients, and make their clients aware that such tactics aren’t acceptable – although you’d think that marketing companies would know this already!

Either way, online reviews can never be 100% trustworthy. If you’re looking for tradesperson, product or other online service and you’re suspicious of the reviews on one site, take the time to look at another or simply do a wider Google search.

It’s also worth noting that negative reviews can also be fake, such as in the Dutch case. It’s difficult for a single web user to tell fake reviews from genuine ones, which makes it important to get support from companies such as Google when it comes to taking down abusive comments. Hopefully, governments taking action on the issue will encourage businesses to behave more ethically.

What do we think ?

It’s hard to imagine why an online marketing company would think that posting false reviews was good business practice, or why their client businesses would go along with it, but such is the nature of online sales. Search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques frequently push the boundaries – they’re the reason for lots of search ‘terms’ dumped at the bottom of pages, and why sites ‘trade’ links to one another.

Google frequently updates its algorithm to punish such techniques but, along with other online review sites, it needs to find a better way to check and monitor reviews, because they have the power to make or break a business.

If you’re looking for a restaurant, hair salon or plumber on Google Maps or similar, you probably won’t have time to unpick all the reviews or ratings that pop up – you’ll simply take one that looks good and ignore the rest. But if we can’t have some trust in the validity of those reviews and ratings, the entire system is broken and, in the end, pointless. Any effort to improve online reviews is good news for web users.

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