Ever stayed in a hotel, used a furniture removalist or bought a kitchen appliance after reading positive online reviews, and felt like a victim of bait and switch? There is a good chance those customer testimonials were fake.
A few years back the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission studied online testimonials on which consumer so heavily rely and estimated 30 per cent might be fabrications.
This week the ACCC has pinged Australia’s largest provider of serviced apartments, Meriton, for allegedly doctoring the testimonials process by devising a scheme whereby reviews by unhappy customers were misdirected from reaching their destination TripAdvisor. And the regulator is taking the matter to court alleging Meriton’s conduct is misleading or deceptive.
According to the ACCC here is how this one worked: TripAdvisor offers a service called “Review Express” where participating businesses provide TripAdvisor with email addresses of recent customers who have consented to passing on their details. TripAdvisor then emails the customers, prompting them to submit a review of their recent experience with that business.
The ACCC alleges that from November 2014 to October 2015, Meriton took steps to prevent guests it suspected would give a negative review from receiving TripAdvisor’s “Review Express” email to avoid them posting potentially negative reviews.
This was done by inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses provided to TripAdvisor so that the email addresses were ineffective, and not sending other guest email addresses to TripAdvisor. This practice was referred to as masking.
The ACCC’s statement of claim says that on November 20, 2014, Meriton’s Administration Co-ordinator sent an email to Meriton staff (including managers of Meriton properties) which said:
“In order to ensure complaints are not carried onto TripAdvisor, I strongly recommend that each property add a ‘Emel! MSA’d’ column in their duty log spreadsheet […] Of course this won’t eliminate negative reviews completely, but at least it will streamline masking guest bookings more effectively and capture all guests who have recorded a complaint … MSA Kent Street have recently implemented this showing great results with their reviews so I wanted to share it across properties as well.”
This alleged behaviour appears elaborate and relatively complicated given it has to bypass the rules that govern the review website TripAdvisor – whose business model relies on consumer’s trusting the independence of the reviews posted.
And according the ACCC’s court documents Meriton went beyond this general masking practice. It specifically failed to send TripAdvisor the email address of the majority of guests staying at a number of their hotel apartments when, for example, the Meriton Bondi property at a time when the phone lines were down, there was no hot water and the lift wasn’t operating. Similarly most of the guests of the Kent St property in Sydney’s CBD whose stay coincided with the evacuation of one level due to a damaged gas line which caused the hot water to fail allegedly had their email addresses altered.
And Meriton has defended its actions saying “[it] does not agree that the public has ever been deceived or misled. The proceedings will be defended.”
But gaming the online “review” system can be far simpler and not easy to detect. And an ever increasing number of consumers are becoming more reliant on online sourcing of crowd opinion for goods and services that they can’t touch, see or experience before they buy.
Take the Electrodry Carpet Cleaning case. The Federal Court ordered its franchisor to pay penalties last year after it found that Electrodry posted, and requested that its franchisees post, customer testimonials about the quality of carpet cleaning services when those customers were fabricated and the services had not been provided.
Furniture removalist Citymove paid penalties after being issued with infringement notices by the ACCC relating to allegations that Citymove used fabricated customer identities to post two testimonials on Google+ and one testimonial on YouTube.
Even a supplier of solar panels was snared by the ACCC for false video testimonials posted on Youtube.
It’s a difficult crime to police and in large part the authorities are alerted to the practice by competitors.
In the case of Meriton the ACCC investigation was prompted by the media. The ABC received screenshots taken by a former staff manager which allegedly show guests were offered bribes to pressure them to alter their reviews.
And this raises another issue. These marketing statements create another class of victim beyond consumers. Law abiding competitors are disadvantaged if they are playing by the rules and posting honest reviews, some of which will be negative.