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The Consumers Have Spoken: Online Reviews Helping to Level the Playing Field

Aug 10, 2012

By Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

Before the Internet age, consumers had just a few available sources of ostensibly unbiased information about the products and services they interested in buying.

They had professional reviewers on TV and in newspapers and magazines.  Do you remember those? And, of course, they had the age-old standby: word-of-mouth.

But back then, without today’s web of information flowing between billions of desktop computers and mobile devices, the purveyors of products and services always dominated the consumer experience. It was rare for huge numbers of consumer opinions to receive wide dissemination, if at all.

Then the personal computer met the Internet, and it all changed. Suddenly, consumers were able to wrest away some of the merchants’ power to dictate the terms of their relationships – by airing their opinions online in numbers great enough to force sellers to pull inventory from the market in order to correct the products’ defects.

After all, bad reviews make for bad PR!

Today, if you want the lowdown on a new eatery, you can check out Yelp, Zagat or dozens of other recommendation sites. Want to make sure that a contractor won’t skip off with your initial payment and leave you with a giant hole in the roof? Go to Angie’s List. And, of course, there is the all-purpose Epinions, which has been publishing consumers’ views to the Web since 1999.

To be sure, online reviews can be used in questionable ways. Back in January 2012, TIME Magazine ran a story about a company that tucked solicitations for positive reviews in exchange for refunds into the leather tablet cases it sold through Amazon.com.  And we’ve all seen those reviews so effusively for or against a particular product they seem to have been written by either a PR person or a competitor.

However, there are some sharp minds who have been working on programs that help brands monitor their online reviews, spotting those that are likely fraudulent.

Austin-based Bazaarvoice, which manages online reviews for brands such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Macy’s, has devised a process called “device fingerprinting” that helps the company sniff out bogus reviews for its clients. Last year, the New York Times wrote about the business of buying five-star reviews and the team of Cornell researchers who have come up with an algorithm that zeroes in on certain kinds of words that flag reviews as fake.

Considering that 81% of American consumers include online reviews in their purchase decision-making process, this is very encouraging.

Let’s hope these innovators’ work becomes an important daily part of every brand’s reputation-management strategy.

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