Earlier this year, the government published its long-awaited Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. As well as seeking to boost digital competition, the bill also makes a range of interventions in the consumer space, including tackling fake reviews.
The importance of reviews is clear – consumers want to make more informed and confident decisions, a factor that is more vital in the current economic climate when budgets are so stretched. They’re also invaluable for businesses who want to access customer feedback and hone their business offering accordingly.
However, as the government has correctly identified, there is an issue with bad actors manipulating this valuable source of consumer insight by peddling fake reviews.
At Trustpilot, we define a fake review as a review that is not based on a genuine experience. We dedicate a significant amount of resources to keeping fake reviews off our platform, even going as far as suing businesses engaged in buying fake reviews on our platform. Trust is at the core of our business and we can’t let fake reviews jeopardise that.
We therefore welcome the government’s focus on tackling fake reviews and there is a lot in their plans to like. Powers granted in the bill can be used to ban both the commissioning and incentivising of fake reviews, and the offering or advertising of fake review services.
This would be a substantial step forward in stamping out fake reviews. Whilst we have had success in suing bad actors through the courts, legislation that specifically targets businesses and individuals offering these services could have a major impact in deterring this activity.
Missing out the middle man
But we do think that they should go further and target the vehicle fake review sellers use to sell their wares: namely sites and marketplaces that host the sale of fake reviews. Put simply, if the government misses out the ‘middle-man’ in its approach, an opportunity to properly quash bad actors and reduce fake reviews is lost.
Rightly, the proposals also plan to get review platforms to step up and play their part. Trustpilot fully supports this. However, the success of what is currently being proposed – to ban the “hosting of consumer reviews without taking reasonable and proportionate steps to check they are genuine” – will depend on the detail in the guidance accompanying the legislation. What, for example, would be considered “reasonable and proportionate steps”?
This is where real care is needed. We have been concerned that, to date, a lot of the discourse and research on fake reviews – including the government’s own research for this bill – has focused on product reviews, and often only product reviews on ecommerce websites themselves. In reality, the reviews landscape is much more extensive – Trustpilot, for example, is a standalone review site hosting reviews of businesses and merchants, rather than of specific products.
You may wonder why this matters, but to be successful any new legislation and the solutions it proposes need to be based on a comprehensive understanding of the sector it is covering. Otherwise, there is a risk of delivering unintended consequences.
Case in point – if legislative action is based on product reviews on ecommerce sites, a “reasonable and proportionate step” to prove a review is based on a genuine experience could be to require reviewers to produce a receipt of that purchase. However, if someone wants to review a business rather than a product, they may not have a receipt.
For example, a consumer could find themselves put off purchasing due to a bad customer experience. Their experience is still valid but for instances like this, an overly prescriptive requirement from the government for reviewers to have a receipt as proof of their experience would prevent this consumer from sharing their genuine experience.
Digital Markets Bill: unintended consequences
To avoid unintended consequences and shutting down genuine consumer views, the government must take into account the range of business models and types of reviews when they flesh out the details of their proposals for fake reviews. This will help to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that risks stifling the consumer voice, competition and innovation. It would be a great irony were a bill meant to champion digital competition result in a reduction of competition in the online review space.
Ultimately, this legislative approach is the right one in order to help consumers shop online with confidence. The ambition is right and so is much of what is being proposed. But, if we are to drive the intended results, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill must go further.
It must deliver meaningful consequences for those misleading consumers by selling fake reviews, and ensure that the plethora of businesses working in the review landscape are fully considered. With this, both businesses and consumers can reap the benefit of reviews, whilst protecting the consumer voice and competition in the sector.
Carolyn Jameson is chief trust officer at Trustpilot.