Business management

E-commerce: is your brand a target for unethical rivals?

With more and more consumers making purchasing decisions based on internet reviews, some companies are using uncompetitive practices to gain an upper hand on online marketplaces. Here’s a guide to protecting your business profile from sharp practice.

  • More than £23bn of UK consumers’ annual spending is influenced by online reviews
  • A recent consumer investigation revealed that the ratings for technology products sold through the best-known online marketplace had been artificially boosted by fake reviews
  • E-commerce businesses that are affected by fake and negative feedback can take various steps to prevent bogus reviews hurting their bottom line

Scroll down the list of top-rated purchases in any online marketplace – an e-commerce website where you can buy products and services from multiple vendors and third parties – and there are likely to be brands you’ve never heard of. Some of them don’t even have a website or social media presence. Is it possible that they’re appearing at the top, alongside brands that are household names, because their rating has been artificially inflated?

An investigation by Which? earlier this year found technology products from obscure brands being sold through the most well-known online marketplace, Amazon, were the recipients of numerous fake five-star reviews left by unverified buyers.

While this doesn’t impact on large businesses directly, being pushed down the bestsellers’ list can hurt their brand profile. And though large firms will already have a loyal customer base, consumers who are undecided may be persuaded to purchase from a smaller and cheaper brand if it appears to have a higher online rating.

Act professionally and rationally

Research from the Competition and Markets Authority shows that around £23bn of UK consumers’ annual spending is influenced by online reviews.

The issue of fake reviews is compounded by the rise of ‘black-hat’ agencies that are hired to increase the volume of negative feedback left on competing businesses’ products. These agencies will even pay an individual to buy a product first, so that they are deemed to be a verified purchaser and make their subsequent review seem more authentic.

“Unfortunately, no business is immune from being the target of fake reviews. But even if you don’t know who or what is behind them, it’s still possible to fight back and salvage your reputation,” says Daniel Ball, a director at Wax Digital, an e-procurement software firm.

If the negative reviews are fairly limited, the best approach might be to reach out to reviewers individually and politely ask them to take feedback down.

“You could also invite a reviewer to contact you directly to take the conversation offline. This shows you’re acting professionally and are keen to respond to any issues they had,” suggests Ball.

What’s imperative is that you don’t respond when emotions are running high. Being rash could make the situation worse.

“Being emotional or defensive can make you look bad and could make your aggressors even more determined,” argues Simon Wadsworth, managing partner at Igniyte, a reputation-management company.

Watch out for dirty tricks

You also need to be mindful of safety claims filed against your products, says Ball. A reviewer may use specific words such as “fire”, “smoke” or “exploded” to trigger an online marketplace to remove the product from its site and even take down your seller page altogether. If you’re not the only company selling a particular product, your competitors will be free to sell theirs while your listing is suspended.

Getting your account reinstated and coming to a resolution can be complicated by the fact that the reviewer may have been paid to leave their review as a verified purchaser.

No business is immune from being the target of fake reviews. But even if you don’t know who or what is behind them, it’s still possible to salvage your reputation

Daniel Ball, director, Wax Digital

Another tactic black-hat agencies and competitors may employ is listing hijacking. This is when an unknown brand produces a poor imitation of your product, often selling it at a fraction of the cost, or sells the same third-party products you do, copying your listing word for word, diluting your brand profile. In this situation, the solution is to contact the seller infringing on your rights immediately with a cease-and-desist letter.

There’s also the option of filing a complaint with the online marketplace in question. This requires you to gather as much evidence and as many details as possible, although the problem with this is that it can be a long and drawn-out process.

Then there’s the issue of counterfeiting. It’s something big brands take very seriously – in 2017, Chanel won a lawsuit against 24 Amazon sellers, who were ordered to pay $100,000 for every counterfeit item they sold. The more well known your business is, the more likely you are to be targeted.

If you are the victim of counterfeiting, you usually have to flag the issue via a form to the online marketplace concerned, which then evaluates your claim. However, earlier this year, Amazon launched Project Zero in the US, a tool that uses machine learning to automatically flag and remove counterfeit products, as well as a function for brands to remove flagged listings themselves.

Have a solid review-management strategy

If you do find yourself the target of sustained uncompetitive behaviour – beyond just the odd suspiciously negative review – you need to do is to activate a solid review-management strategy, advises Wadsworth.

Last year, the British Standards Institute (BSI) launched the first international standards for online reviews, ISO 20488:2018, in partnership with the automated customer feedback solution Feefo.

The standards ask any organisation that publishes consumer reviews online, including third parties, to verify that they come from genuine customers. Among its other recommendations are that those responsible for administrating customer feedback keep a record of illicit reviews, and any relevant documents related to them, for at least one year from the date they’re removed.

A BSI spokesperson says: “Many consumers use online reviews to inform their purchasing decisions. They trust what they read online. Such guidelines are designed to help companies build and retain that trust and to empower consumers, by ensuring the quality, integrity, accuracy and transparency of reviews.”

Getting online marketplaces to remove fake reviews in the first place can be tricky, though, because proving they’re bogus isn’t always straightforward, says Wadsworth.

There are some tell-tale signs. For example, there might be a spike in negative reviews and feedback left in the space of a few days or a week. These reviews may also be short, use simple language, have poor syntax and grammar, and may even repeat words or phrases featured in other, similarly negative reviews.

When it comes to addressing the fakes, including bogus safety claims, Wadsworth advises making a considered public response on social media. He recommends subtly informing your followers of the situation, without pointing the finger and stating the obvious.

Encourage positive feedback

Just one negative review can cost businesses up to 22% of their customers, according to Wadsworth. “We’ve found that if there are four or more negative reviews, then it rises to 77%, so these reviews can have a huge impact on a company’s bottom line,” he adds.

Even if you’ve succeeded in having bogus reviews removed, both Wadsworth and Ball agree you should try to drown out the negativity with positivity as part of the post-purchase, off-boarding process.

“Encourage buyers to leave feedback whenever possible, generating fair reviews. In time, the good comments will likely far outweigh the bad ones,” says Ball.

“You need to work on your review-management strategy to attract more positive reviews from the genuine customers,” adds Wadsworth. “It will help increase star ratings [on online marketplaces] and improve public perception, giving you more leverage to counter false claims in the future.”

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