The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) will investigate specialist review sites, blogs, social media, trader sites, retail platforms and retailers’ own websites in an inquiry into concerns regarding the sites’ trustworthiness and impartiality.
It will also look at the role media companies, online reputation managers and search engine optimisers play in helping to promote themselves and manage their image in relation to review sites.
The CMA said it is particularly interested in how consumers use review sites and the extent they rely on them; how suppliers acting for them promote their brands; what action review sites take to ensure consumers are not misled; and whether any of those areas are leading to significant detriment to consumers and/or businesses.
A survey from Deloitte last year estimated that 81% of UK consumers read customer reviews/ratings and 60% trust them, compared to only 16% that trust the retailers’ own websites.
A straw poll of Publican’s Morning Advertiser readers last week showed that 89% think customer comments on review sites have affected their trade.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, which has been involved in a European inquiry into review sites, said: “This is not simply a matter of dealing with the occasional bad review, there are more pressing commercial points of concern too. These range from paid-for rankings and false reviews posted against offers to anti-competitive contract terms such as rate parity clauses, which restrict an operator’s ability to control their pricing and respond to the market.”
Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, also welcomed the inquiry. “Companies running these sites have a responsibility to ensure that pubs are not damaged by unfair reviews, so this is welcome and I would urge publicans to share their experiences,” she said.
Tim Hulme, chief executive of the British Institute of Innkeeping, added: “The issue arises when malicious or bogus reviews are published on sites that have no safeguards in place to ensure the reviewer is genuine, and no direct forms of redress for inaccurate copy that can seriously impact the business.”
Stosie Madi, of the Parkers Arms in Newton-In-Bowland, Lancashire, said: "Customer comments on review sites such as TripAdvisor do affect our trade in that if it's made up & vitriolic staff moral deflates enormously. As to whether is drives more trade in is questionable.
"We have had customers bring up the negative reviews and our management replies as a comic point of interest and some people do fill in our customer feedback forms that their visit is due to TripAdvisor but it's minimal. What is unacceptable is that TripAdvisor does not police its website enough to spot false, defamatory & slanderous reviews. This I'm sure could be solved with stricter UK laws."
James Penlington, licensee of the Bell in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, said: "Review sites, specifically TripAdvisor, have had a positive influence on our pub’s business and we reply to every review. The site is clearly open to abuse though and editorial responsibility is basically non-existent. Anything that improves accountability should be welcomed."
A TripAdvisor spokesman said it already allows business owners or managers to post responses to reviews and owners can report any review they feel is in breach of the site’s guidelines.
The CMA consultation closes on 25 March.
Advice on tackling negative reviews
BII chief Tim Hulme said: “We would recommend that should you discover a negative review of your business that you take steps to address this by responding with the reviewer offering to talk or directly communicate with them in order to understand their experience with the aim to redress the situation as best as possible.
"Do not enter into further dialogue publicly, on-line. If the situation cannot be resolved, and you believe it is an inaccurate or defamatory review we suggest you contact the site administrators and request that they remove the offending piece giving the evidence that you have in trying to resolve any genuine issues.”