Online reviews have a significant influence on consumers when they are making decisions about what to buy. If you’re asking your customers to provide you with an online review, you’re giving them an opportunity to share their experience with the world at large by placing it on a public platform. It might be positive or negative in substance, but you must always ensure that all online reviews about your business are genuine reviews from actual customers. Without carefully monitoring the authenticity of your online reviews, you could end up breaching the Australian Consumer Law (“ACL”) by giving potential consumers the wrong impression about your business. If you have placed fake reviews online to make your business look for reputable, you should take them down and contact your business lawyer immediately.

Authentic reviews

Online reviews are usually found on the business’ website or on review platforms. Review platforms provide reviews on various products and assist consumers in making the right product choices. As consumers, we all expect (and hope) that the reviews we read online are genuine and accurate. The consequences of uploading inaccurate reviews can be serious, and a business lawyer should be consulted whenever there is doubt about a review’s authenticity.

Made-up reviews

Review platforms, along with the businesses themselves, must immediately remove any fake reviews as soon as they become aware of them. Otherwise, they could be in breach of the Competitions and Consumer Act 2010. It does not matter if a review appears to be genuine but is written by any of the following:

  • The business being reviewed;
  • Any of its competitors;
  • An individual who has not used the product/service but is being asked/paid to write the review;
  • An individual who did use the product and embellished the experience to receive compensation.

Certain conduct is prohibited by the ACCC if it is capable of misleading consumers, including:

  • Getting your friends or family to generate reviews for your company site, but not communicating that there is a previous connection to the company;
  • Making a review that doesn’t reflect a real experience i.e. making up an opinion;
  • Trying to get other people to write fake reviews when they have not actually tried out the goods/services themselves.

Can you offer an inducement?

It is also risky to offer clients inducements to write reviews that reflect positively on the business. The only time when you are able to offer an inducement to write a review is when:

  • Both good and bad reviewers receive the reward;
  • It is communicated that both good and bad reviews are rewarded; and
  • Users are told about the inducement.

Be clear about any commercial relationships

If you have a tight-knit relationship with a review platform or you advertise on a review platform, they may give you preferential treatment in terms of which reviews they choose to show and which they don’t. This preferential relationship can lead consumers into believing that the businesses appearing higher up on the page were ranked higher overall in terms of ‘user experience’. You are required to disclosure these commercial relationship so that consumers do not become misled. If you’re unsure whether to disclose your commercial relationship, consult a business lawyer.

What about ratings?

Review platforms that use a star rating system to rank businesses should also indicate the number of reviews this star rating is based on. This is so that consumers can see how many people have actually used the service or experienced the goods. This will assist consumers in making a more informed choice when choosing which business to go with.

What can you change?

If a business or review platform decides to edit all of their unfavourable reviews to make the overall impression of a business seem more attractive to a potential consumer, it is likely that that consumer will be misled by this conduct. In other words, if the reviews that are available on the website/review platform only represent a fragment of the total reviews, it is possible for consumers to be misled by this narrow representation of the users’ overall impression.

Spotting an impostor

There are several methods for spotting a fake review. Fake reviews will usually have the following characteristics:

  • If there is a spike in the amount of reviews for one business in particular and these reviews are over a very short period of time;
  • The email/IP address may be the same;
  • The content of the review is over the top in that it uses mostly laudatory words e.g. great, excellent, fantastic, the best etc.; and
  • There are several reviews worded in very similar ways about the same goods/business.

Conclusion

Misleading consumers by writing, uploading or in some other way generating false online reviews, is likely to get you into trouble with the ACCC and may result in your business breaching the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. For advice on how to avoid this, contact LegalVision on 1300 544 755 and speak with one of our team of experienced business lawyers.

Priscilla Ng

Next Steps

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