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Online Reviews: How Much Do They Actually Matter?

Online Reviews: How Much Do They Actually Matter?

I'm going to a wedding in Cuba this week and since I didn't book my resort, I have no idea what to expect. So like any normal person, I've been compulsively reading online reviews on Google and Trip Advisor to prepare myself. And what I've gathered from my diligent review-reading is one main thing: this resort is either going to be heaven on earth or the worst hell I will ever experience.

Who can I trust? Why are there almost zero middle range reviews that highlight a mediocre vacation with really awesome food but maybe a really crowded poolside bar? All of my review reading really got me thinking and it couldn't have come at a better time.

One of our clients is going through a bit of a PR crisis because of a smattering of really awful, negative reviews that are completely made up and untrue. The person who is writing the reviews is very upset and has made it a personal vendetta to write negative reviews of our client on every online space imaginable - Google, Facebook, Houzz and Yelp, just to name a few.

Do Online Reviews Matter?

With today's sharing economy, we rely on reviews to make our decisions about where to travel, where to stay and who to buy from. A negative review can really hurt a business and quite often it's not deserved. The CBC reported in 2012 that as many as 15% of online reviews are fake. But with the proliferation of smartphones and our constant access to the internet, I'd argue that it's much higher now.

But whether a review is true or false, does it really matter? When it comes to Google reviews it can matter. Having, or not having, reviews can actually impact your rankings and even determine whether or not your business shows up in a map search. Google has also shared that 70% of customers trust online reviews posted by other customers. So even if we were to pretend that reviews didn't impact rankings, it's clear that they impact customer sentiment about your business.

How Do You Get Rid of Them?

Here's the bad part and here's why I'm so frustrated with Google. There's really not much you can do to get rid of a review - good or bad - regardless of where it is. You are always welcome to flag or report reviews, but unless it violates the community guidelines, it's likely not going to get removed. The types of reviews that violate community guidelines include profanity and things of that nature.

When it comes to Google, it's nearly impossible to remove a review. Even if you flag the review, call Google's customer support or respond to the reviewer to say their comment is untrue, it won't be taken down. Google's stance is that it's an open community and they do not police reviews, regardless of how shady or suspect they may seem. As long as the review is written about your experience and doesn't include swear words, it stays up.

I don't have the answer to how Google can fix this problem and only allow legitimate reviews. But I know that it's too easy for someone to make numerous false Google accounts all for the purpose of defaming a business. It's also easy for people to do this on Facebook, Yelp and Houzz. And with no way of monitoring or removing false reviews, it seems really unfair to honest businesses who fall prey to conniving competitors who pay unsavory companies to write false reviews or disgruntled customers who get delight seeing a business suffer.

My Advice:

With all that said, I have some advice for you, whether you're the business owner or if you're just looking for a good place to have dinner on a Saturday night.

* Take all reviews with a grain of salt. Most people who are inclined to write reviews are either really happy or really unhappy with their experience. When was the last time you reviewed a restaurant to share about it's average service and run-of-the-mill margarita pizza?

* Use your judgement. If every review sounds the same, has the same tone, uses the same words, has an obviously fake name with no profile picture, and there's like, 4 of them that appeared on the same day, they are likely false.

* Read the responses. If the businesses owner has responded to the review, see what they have to say and how they've addressed it. In reality, all businesses have bad days (I'd be suspicious if a business only had good reviews, in all honesty) but how they handle the situation gives real insight to their character and whether or not this review is legitimate.

* Be proactive. As a business owner, the best way to deal with negative reviews is to outweigh them with positive reviews. This is why it is so important to follow up with your customers after you've provided them with a service so that they can write you a good review. If you are actively building up your positive reviews, when you do get that negative review, it won't matter as much.

* Use your response to your advantage. Since most online spaces won't remove reviews, as a business owner, you need to respond to them and try to resolve the issue. Avoid arguing with the reviewer. If the negative review was legitimate, try to resolve the issue. If the review is negative and false, craft a response that will show prospective clients that there is no record of the person being a customer and they are attempting to damage your reputation.

* Flag them and report them when possible. Some networks are better than others about removing them but generally, it's tough to remove any review. Houzz is actually quite good about removing false reviews but Facebook and Google generally won't touch them unless it violates their community guidelines.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a negative review? How did you handle it and what steps did you take? And if you're a consumer, I'd also love to know how you read reviews. Do you take them at face value or do you look at more than one review site to see what other people are saying?