Is It Unethical to Purchase Reviews and Endorsements?

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If you’ve ever wondered where to grab dinner, which doctor to choose, or which stores carry the best kind of artisan bookends, you’ve probably done a Google search. And, depending on which results show up, you’ll see that there are at least a few local businesses with stars next to their names—the stars representing ratings and reviews.

In the past, we’ve talked about encouraging customers to leave reviews and why reviews are so important to your business. But lately, it seems there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding this topic—is it wrong to offer an incentive for reviews? Should you ever pay for reviews? Should you be able to filter your reviews so that mostly positive ones show up?

Well, in this post we’d like to clarify a few things and hopefully answer some of these questions once and for all. Of course, this is simply our take on the subject—opinions on the ethicality of these subjects definitely wavers.

The Incentive

Some people think it’s unethical to offer an incentive for a review. Just look at what happened to VIP Deals. An Amazon Marketplace seller, VIP Deals had been compensating customers when they submitted positive reviews. The incentive was a full refund for Kindle cases.

Now, a full refund may be a bit over the top. But we don’t see anything wrong with offering your customers a little extra something for participating.

Yes, offering an incentive—whether a 10% off coupon for any old review or a full refund for a positive review—can sway reviewers. Even if you don’t “have” to leave a positive review, you may feel inclined to do so to get the reward.

So we can see where the line gets a bit fuzzy. But if you want to encourage customers to leave you reviews and do so in an ethical way, simply post a sign in your store or send out emails to your subscribers and ask them politely to help you out with a review. If you really want to offer an incentive, something small like a coupon or your photo on a happy customer collage certainly can’t be construed as manipulative or misleading.

The Purchased Review

This is a pretty black-and-white issue for most people: Purchasing reviews is seen as disingenuous. Companies that offer anywhere from $5-200 to leave a positive review seem desperate at best, and completely untrustworthy at worst.

Yelp has cracked down on this, and hard. This article is two years old now, and Yelp has worked hard to improve their algorithm to uncover more problem reviews. And it’s worked—many of the reviews that were actually bogus have been hidden away in an inconspicuous spot on the page (behind a link at the very bottom of the page, where you have to click to get the rest of the reviews to even show up—and they’re printed in gray, meaning they’re not counted toward the overall rating).

But the unfortunate part of this is that sometimes these reviews are genuine, and still get flagged as “not recommended”. This means that, even if you avoid purchasing reviews, sometimes your happy customers will oblige you with a kind review, and their words won’t even end up being seen. This isn’t incredibly common, but because of the rocky history of review purchasing, it has become an unfortunate problem.

The bottom line? Don’t purchase reviews. They will be removed, you will be punished or banned from the site, and it can only result in your own reputation being harmed.

The Retaliatory Review

Some companies go as far as to have their customers leave nasty reviews on competitors’ sites, while rating their own products highly so that they appear to be the better choice.

Now, obviously we all think our products are the best. And we strive to provide the best customer experience possible. We don’t want to think that someone else out there could be stealing our potential customers.

So for some reason, unscrupulous business owners have paid people to go out and leave these exceedingly negative reviews. And guess what? Places like Amazon and Yelp have figured out how to discover whether you’ve actually purchased the product you’re reviewing or not. For example, on Amazon.com, reviews will say something like “verified purchase”. This way, a customer can easily see who has actually purchased the product and who hasn’t.

If you’ve been thinking of sending out the minions to make your competitors look bad in comparison to your awesomeness, you’d better think again. This will backfire on you.

So what’s a company to do?

According to the LA Times, very few customers write reviews. In fact, for one case study, fewer than 2% of customers wrote reviews.

It’s all in your judgment—you can offer a small incentive for customers who review you, and you can make sure that your politely-worded request is visible on your website, social media sites, and any advertising that you do—as well as in your store, if you have a storefront. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging reviews. It’s when you start paying for them, lying about your competitors, or offering incentives worth far too much money (basically, you’re paying for the reviews at this point), that you have a problem.

Don’t risk your reputation. Keep your reviews honest, and it’ll pay off.

Comments or thoughts you’d like to share? Put them in the comments below!

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