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[18 comments]

Are anonymous reviews good or bad?

August 29, 2014

Consumers appear to like the option of being able to leave anonymous reviews. Many stores and restaurants also appear okay with the practice. The problem is that some businesses hate them — and they're litigating.

Most sites with reviews — including Yelp, Amazon, Google+, Travelocity and Angie's List — require reviewers to sign in with at least a working e-mail but allow anonymous reviews or the use of a pseudonym such as "A Google User."

A recent survey of 1,300 American consumers from Livefyre, the Social commenting platform, laid out the consumer viewpoint.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents who comment online have done so anonymously or with pseudonyms, and most of them only do so in certain circumstances. Nearly half (48 percent) do so because they feel they can be more open and honest than if they identified themselves. Another 34 percent cited other reasons, such as protecting their identities for personal security reasons, not wanting to reveal personal beliefs with employers, and preventing bias based on irrelevant data such as race or appearance. Only five percent say they commented anonymously in order to make mean-spirited remarks.

Other findings:

  • More than 88 percent still use their real identities at least some of the time, and half use them regularly;
  • If forced to use their real identities, the majority of people won't engage — a result that hinders the potential for a brand to connect with its audience;
  • Nearly 80 percent of respondents who comment anonymously attribute the same value to anonymous comments as those made from verified identities.

Critics of online reviews claim positive anonymous reviews are sometimes perceived as spam or false reviews. Worse, many believe anonymous negative reviews often come from competitors or other "bullies" making up or exaggerating tales to damage a business's reputation.

In a Wall Street Journal earlier this year profiling a business that was suing seven Yelp reviewers for defamation, Yelp admitted it receives about six subpoenas monthly, some of which seek the names of anonymous users. According to eater.com, over 1,700 French chefs earlier this week signed a anti-defamation petition to encourage review sites to "moderate their users and to ask for proof of their visits to our establishments."

For now, consumer review websites appear to be protected by the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes sites for libelous speech by their users.

Discussion Questions:

Do anonymous reviews help or hurt the quality of reviews on consumer review websites? Do you see pushes to ban anonymous reviews continuing to build in the years ahead?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do anonymous reviews help or hurt the quality of reviews on consumer review websites?

Comments:

I don't see a real difference between anonymous fake reviews vs. fake reviews with a carefully-crafted fake identity. I've seen the latter on my Forbes blog. If I write something about Target, someone will comment in a way that's slightly off-target (sorry, no pun intended) but reiterating that Walmart always has lower prices.

For me, reviews have lost their luster for the most part, unless there are a lot of them. One or two just don't matter, in that context, I'm looking for trends, not specifics.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Anonymous reviews both good and bad are worth not more or less than those using a fake identity. However, people know that "A Google User" is someone seeking to remain anonymous while they may not recognize a fake name.

My limited reading of reviews indicates there are generally some good and some bad for the same item, business, etc. I, like Paula, look for a trend over time for something like a restaurant, or a significant variance between good and bad for a store overall or an item.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

A finding that "Only five percent say they commented anonymously in order to make mean-spirited remarks" is hardly a surprise. Do you really think that self-loathing, assholic jerks will reveal their true psychological motivation and reason for their behavior?

I suggest we play it the same way from both sides of the table. If you honestly identify yourself you can identify the entity you're commenting on. If you want to remain anonymous you have to keep the restaurant, store, etc. anonymous too. E.g., "I ate at a restaurant in the central U.S. and the service was terrible and the chicken undercooked. I'll never go back! Signed, Dissatisfied Diner."

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

I do reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, and see many names who also review similar places, things or restaurants, which gives more credibility to the review. I also look for patterns in order to gain a true insight on a product or service before making a purchase. Many times it works out quite well, but a few times not so much. Anonymous reviews I take with a grain of salt, and I still look for the top commentators that I feel more comfortable with, which I'm sure others do as well.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

As Paula points out, anyone willing to write a fraudulent review is probably willing to create a fraudulent account/ID to do so.

It's clear that a percentage of reviews on all sites are fraudulent, but numerous studies reveal that the typical shoppers knows some reviews are fake and feel they know how to filter them out.

The problem is that if you only allow verified reviews, you may get fewer fake reviews, but you also get fewer real reviews, and some form of social proof (such as a critical mass of reviews) is important to e-commerce success.

The most effective reviews are ones from people the shopper knows, or from people the shoppers feels are similar to them. So the best practice is to give shoppers tools to sort reviews for relevance, i.e., show me reviews from people in my social graph first, tag reviews by attributes of the reviewer and allow me to filter based on those attributes, badge reviews that are verified and allow me to filter for only verified reviews.

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Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

Interesting topic Tom leads us in to the holiday weekend with. I tend to take all reviews with a grain of salt, yet I am one who will sign a review rather than be anonymous. If I care enough to review a place, usually a restaurant, I should be open enough to sign my name.
I reviewed a restaurant on Yelp some time back. I had no idea the owner knew who I was. The next time I went there, the owner came out and thanked me.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Anonymous consumer reviews, just as consumers themselves, are from multiple breeds of folks. There is always a special reason behind anonymous comments. A special reason does not always embrace the truth. Hiding behind anonymous comments is not truth. So who needs to know them?

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

In a majority of cases anonymous reviews are fine, it's the extreme cases where someone hides behind the anonymity to defame a company for the reasons mentioned in the article:

"Critics of online reviews claim positive anonymous reviews are sometimes perceived as spam or false reviews. Worse, many believe anonymous negative reviews often come from competitors or other 'bullies' making up or exaggerating tales to damage a business's reputation."

Personally, my perspective is people should identify themselves in some way, using first initial and last name like B. Davis, but it's hard to see that being enforced as most companies do like to take full advantage of the anonymity on occasion. It's a company-by-company decision, so it's worth reading their reviewer policy to understand how they manage this.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

If the small business owners that I work with could have their way, anonymous reviews would surely be banned. Such reviews are typically negative and clearly annoying, due to the fact that they come from an unknown source.

To deal with anonymous reviews, I advise my clients to develop a social media response strategy and keep it consistent. The strategy can be to ignore anonymous comments, reply in a positive manner, take action through the specific website or reach out to loyal customers and encourage positive comments through social channels. Positive brand building is the best response and, in some cases, the defense.

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Karen S. Herman, Founder & Design Director, Gustie Creative LLC

Ah, the realities of social media! Face it, I do not see a push to ban anonymous reviews in the future. The realities of the digital world are front and center and businesses of all sorts are simply going to have to deal with the anonymous consumer. In fact, I would suspect this is going to increase as the public becomes more aware of privacy issues with the internet. All of this is part of "big data" and will not go away. As a consumer I pay attention to the reviews and then I make my own judgment.

David Lubert, Industry Principal, Bridge-x Technologies

Wait a minute. If you don't believe anonymous reviews then I suppose you can ditch all the opinion research conducted among your customers that maintains the confidentiality of the respondents. I think Paula's remarks cover it all.

By the way, if you haven't read Ian's post, only do so if you are healthy enough to withstand endless laughter. Thanks Ian.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

I find that I judge the value of reviews on whether their purpose seems almost entirely focused on hurting or punishing the restaurant/store/hotel, or whether they seem to be focused on wanting to help or inform other possible consumers of aspects of said establishment. (Or even, gadzooks, trying to help the establishment get better.) For this reason the anonymity factor is less important to me than the feel of the comment.

I can understand, for example, why a recent guest at a small bed and breakfast might prefer anonymity, especially if they expect or hope to go back again despite a less than perfect experience there this time.

'Liatt'

1) It's far too easy to leave an anonymous review—and do a lot of damage in the process. 2) It takes time, mostly unnecessary, to sift through all kinds of comments, and then decide what to believe and what to discount. 3. Anonymity leads me to question the veracity and intention of all the comments, even those made objectively or with good intention.

If anonymous comments are allowed, use Ian's idea that both sides have to be anonymous. That gives the deliverer a chance to sound off without doing direct or indirect damage to the recipient of the comments. Most of all, I worry about anonymity making it too easy to lead to diatribe—racism, politics, nationalism, hate—insidious, invidious. Remember the "First they came" quote: ..."Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

Is the anonymity really the issue? Methinks not. People are going to say what they want, fake or real, regardless of whether they are allowed to do it anonymously or not.

Personally, I love reviews. Especially for restaurants. I like to see what others think is the best. So I, like Paula, look for the trends. If every review is a rant, there is probably something to it. If only a couple are rants then I toss them out as outliers.

Frankly, I don't even notice if they are anonymous or not. But that's just my 2 cents....

Lee Kent, Let's meet share and succeed in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

I think there is value to anonymous reviews. Anonymity gives some reviewers more comfort which could result in a more honest evaluation of the product/service.

However, there needs to be some kind of verification of the reviewer by the review entity (Yelp, retailer, etc.) even if the review's identity is not displayed. For product reviews, I find it much more powerful when the review comes from a verified owner of that product—I don't really care about their identity. There are plenty of review/feedback software solutions and each should have some kind of verification of the individual and an associated credibility metric.

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Larry Negrich, Vice President, Marketing, nGage Labs

We have a case in the DC area where a competitor is posting phony, bad review of a carpet cleaning firm. Scathing reviews appear to come from customers, but are posted in cities where the carpet cleaning company isn't located. DC companies generally don't clean rugs for people from Pittsburgh.

It's a shame, because hotel and travel reviews are really helpful.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

I think a legitimate anonymous review is better than no review. That's just my opinion. However, with all reviews, you must read them with a careful eye. Simply put, the more reviews available for the product or service, the better your chances of them being legitimate.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

Run a good business and anonymous reviews won't make a difference. A good business will get lots of good reviews. When consumer see some odd bad review, they are smart enough to figure out they are fake. Same with poorly-run businesses. When I see glowing reviews of a business I know is poorly run, I know that it is fake, too. Ignore the ones that look too good and ignore the ones that look too bad.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

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