Seeing Stars

After what feels like a lifetime of banging my head against a brick wall about charlatans who assemble careers from zilch –  you know, the ones who flit from role to role, staying just long enough before they get unmasked – there are some shysters who had wholly limboed under the Frances bar of shitbag recognition.

Review companies.

I cannot believe I hadn’t latched onto them earlier. Too busy with recruitment and outsourced contact centre sharks, I guess. Too many quacks and so little time.

People who make a living from publishing opinions about what other people are alleged to have done, or not done. Not dissimilar to tabloid newspapers, who care less about the impropriety and more about their ownership of the shock-horror and the power it brings them to wield it.

Self-appointed high priests of self-righteousness claiming to be last bastion of consumer integrity, who step back while your brand is shoed to within an inch of its life.

Now I’m all in favour of free speech, but this has all gone somewhat awry.

Because these companies exercise hugely consequential arbitrary decrees that can make or break businesses, particularly the small ones.

For a start, most will not permit you to de-list your company.  So, once your profile is up there, you are on offer.

Secondly, they can exercise absolute power over what reviews are left on your profile. They answer to nobody, except the policies they institute. It’s scary stuff, when you have to deal with the conceited, condescending, clowns who know they have you over their barrel. And it’s not a barrel of laughs either.

They can opt to remove your most positive reviews or leave up the most negative – even if the latter are fake. And there is an abundance of those. Competitors, ex-partners and plain, good old-fashioned nutters, all primed.

Of course, any review system is always going to be skewed. How many businesses are going to report false reviews that push up their ratings? Sometimes people rate the wrong company in error. They are only going to be flagging the negative ones. It’s always going to start off being distorted in one direction and the whole review farce has been gamed ever since the year dot. Or the year, dot com, as it were.

So that brings us to the review sites themselves. A lot of them claim to have a neutral stance on fact, which is arguably their most disappointing standpoint. Surely even opinions need to be based on an essentially factual premise, otherwise we are simply talking fantasy?

But anything over and above a cursory investigation is simply filed under ‘too hard’. It’s a corner-cutting cop-out that underpins the whole business model.

What they do do, before heartlessly plunging everybody else into the do-do,  is jump on the techno-bandwagon and trumpet the virtuosity of their so-called software algorithms to detect ‘unusual activity’ – that’s blather-speak for some gimp deciding they’re going to play God.

But to avail you of my own recent experience, which is how I came to grasp this thorny nettle.  In my infinite wisdom, I left a review the other day for an organisation and it got removed because the review site ‘couldn’t verify its authenticity’.  So, I dropped them a line to confirm that the review was genuine, as did the organisation I’d reviewed. So, authenticity confirmed, right?

Wrong.

After a flurry of bot-generated (oh yes!) missives, my supplier was informed that the matter was between the site and the reviewer (me).  What they told me was that the review had to remain offline, for reasons they could not disclose, in order to protect the integrity of their compliance practices.

Guys, it’s not a secret – you’re a bunch of tosspots.

Anyway, to compound the irony of the situation, I had originally reviewed the company in response to an invitation that the review site had sent me themselves as part of some crackpot ‘confirmed customer’ scheme.

Well that’s going well isn’t it chaps?

As an aside, the UK review charade has all got a lot worse since libel law precedent changed a few years ago. Therefore, to have a chance of a successful court action, you are going to have to prove serious harm has been done to your reputation by any review chicanery, and of course, have some serious cash behind you that you are prepared to gamble.

And don’t these review sites know it. They know that small businesses are never going to sue, so they play hardball with reputations to force the companies to play the game and engage with the process.

And if you’re a business, you will find that your unremovable profile remains online with whatever reviews the site filters. Hardly a balanced voice of the customer.

There is more. Naturally, these egregious review charlatans don’t run their companies for the good of the customer. A morality crusade it most certainly is not.

Remember, if the product is free, then you are the product.  For a pretty chunky monthly fee, you will have all sorts of analytics you can investigate about your reviewing customers that will help you to gain competitive advantage.

Hang on a minute. I thought this was about protecting the customer?

Er, no. It’s about making a shed load of cash.

Yes, people, it’s another data malarkey and as ever, you had better bend over because here it comes again.

But of course, you won’t be paying anything for any analytics, no matter how good the promise, if the dataset is incomplete. You’d have to see your reviews restored, wouldn’t you?

So, have a guess what happens if you reach into your trouser pocket and stump up the greenbacks? You’ve got it. All your reviews are back online again.

If you’re lucky, Sir may get the bargain deal and start to see reinstated reviews, if Sir tested the waters with a little ad campaign? That’s usually the preferred offer to the smaller business that could not afford the Gargantuan monthly fees that get pushed over to the monoliths.

But you know, maybe I’m being somewhat critical, and people don’t share my views on this.

After all, one of the more prominent players in the review-hosting lark has to date received (on its own platform mind you) over 30 times more reviews of their own service than some of the biggest corporate beasts in the UK have for theirs.  Apple, Sainsburys and Tesco are all languishing on a few thousand reviews and 1- 2 stars out of 5.

Who would have thought that the ability to leave consumer reviews would be igniting passions more than the weekly shopping arriving late, or high-end tech gadgets not working?

But it does…who’d have thunk it?

Oh, and a 4-star average, which is by now – given the critical mass of submissions maturing on the servers like a fine wine – unassailable, even if they started to stream live executions of Labrador puppies from a new HQ in Argentina.

However, the old algorithms probably do need a tweak or two, because Erica – who gave them 5 stars for the ‘marvellous vacuum cleaner’; Armand – who gave them 5 stars in spite of ‘the package arriving a little late’ and Jeremy – who was 5-starringly effusive about ‘one the Best Watch emerging out world wide ’(sic) undoubtedly need to be weeded out.

I mean, I’m probably not as clever as their ‘systems’, but even I know that those reviews aren’t kosher.

The bubble will have to burst soon though, surely.  Maybe someone with the funds will take them on and take them down?

When all is said and done, I have a feeling that online review skulduggery will end up as a revolution that eats its own children.

In a 4.5-star experience, of course.

Until then, we’ll be the ones seeing stars.

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