The online review tide is turning for business owners and their brands

Google business review

Online reviews aren’t always what they appear to be.

If  I had a dollar for every conversation I’ve had with a business owner wringing their hands in despair of the impact of online reviews I’d be writing this from an island in the Bahamas. Even those with the thickest skins find the challenge of managing online reviews painful. For the majority of business and brand owners who genuinely care about providing the best possible quality of product or service for their customers, the emotional and commercial toll of negative online review is significant.

For the most part, the concept of online reviews is sound. What better way for peers to help others identify the best product or service for their needs. A business or brand’s Google Rating have become a powerful and popular shorthand for selecting a product, service or restaurant. ‘Word of mouth’ has long been a powerful way of qualifying quality and this new form of ‘word of mouse’ seems on the surface to make a good thing better. However human nature had other ideas.

The attraction for some people to be seen as experts appeals to a disproportionate number of reviewers who gain personal positive reinforcement through giving businesses a piece of their mind. Unlike traditional professional reviewers who had extensive experience and expertise, this breed of reviewers mistake their personal opinion for informed advice, where criticism replaces critique.

Online reviews have also become a forum for people to complain when their experience falls short of their expectations. Often those expectations are reasonable and their experience has been genuinely poor, but these are still complaints painted-up as reviews. And whilst a good number of people who have suffered disappointment complain – sorry, write a review – a far lesser number of people who have a great experience do the same. This usually provides for an unfairly distorted online brand reputation.

And then there are the review trolls. These come in two varieties; those who enjoy watching the havoc they can wreak on innocent businesses, and the professionals who are paid by one business to tarnish the online reputation of their competitors. Many review sites have policies that make removing these fake reviews all but impossible.

Over the last five years the ratio of genuine reviews to complaints and trolls has swung to the point where they are often in equal numbers with Google being the main source of customer reviews and ratings. The challenge for business and brand owners is that Google has historically been difficult to deal with and far from proactive in identifying and removing false reviews.

Google compelled to identify online reviewer.

However a recent Federal Court ruling in Australia is signalling a shift in the status quo. The Court ruled that Google be compelled to hand over data to a Melbourne dentist to help identify an anonymous reviewer and pursue them for defamation. This ruling suggests the law is finally catching-up with the online world where reviews that would have been libelous if printed in a newspaper have been allowed to live on the web, being read by millions of people without recourse.

In the case of the online review of the Melbourne dentist, reviewer; CBsm 23 claimed a procedure was not ‘done properly’, was ‘a complete waste of time’ and warned readers to ‘STAY AWAY’, accusing the dentist of having ‘never done this before’. The dentist has a strong case to suggest the malicious review was left by a competitor, a disgruntled staff member of a troll. Google had ignored requests to remove the review or to provide information as to the identity of the reviewer, leading the dentist to take legal action. According to the dentist’s legal representation, the review has has a substantially negative impact on his client’s business.

In a separate recent case, Adelaide barrister Gordon Cheng won a $750,000 defamation payout against a person who left a one-star review on Google despite never having hired him. Mark Stanarevic, the defamation lawyer at Matrix Legal who represented the dentist in his case is now preparing a class action on behalf of Australian business owners, claiming; ‘Google has not done enough to prevent the spread of defamatory material on its platforms’.

Whilst these two examples a mere drops in the ocean, they represent the first rain drops of an impending storm that promises to sweep the world of online reviews, bringing change for the better. The days appear numbered for those who seek to use these platforms to air a grievance, intentionally impact a businesses reputation or cause malicious harm. This is welcome news indeed for hard working business and brand owners.

Dave Ansett
David is the founder of Truly Deeply, a branding agency with 25 years experience working with brands to position them for growth. His deep expertise is in the creation of high engagement brands that attract the attention of their audience and stand out from their competitors. David has extensive experience working with corporate, retail, food & beverage and entrepreneurial clients. Find out more here
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