Fake News, Fake Reviews: When a Fake Review Can Derail a Business

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Earlier this year, I did a lot of prospecting for freelance writing work on a popular contract work platform, Upwork. Users on Upwork can bid for jobs ranging from one-off projects to long-term contracts for any variety of skill sets. As a writer, I set my search parameters fairly loosely to writing and editing gigs, and one particular set of recurring jobs always caught my eye: writing reviews.

Soliciting business or product reviews was a foreign concept to me. In my head, reviews are unbiased opinions based on a real customer’s experience. Paid testimonials aren’t really the same thing — especially if the person writing the review was never a real customer in the first place.

And yet, it’s astounding how much business these “reputation management” companies attract by writing hundreds or sometimes thousands of fake reviews to boost a client’s profile on a page such as Yelp, Amazon, or Google. 

I scratched my head as offer after offer would flood my inbox for pennies on the dollar to write 50-word reviews. This technique actually works?

Indeed it does.

There are two sides to the debacle that fake reviews present. As it pertains to veterinary clinics, we’ll approach this from both sides. First, when fake reviews are intended to damage a business’ reputation.

The ‘Revenge Review’

We’ve all seen the viral news stories about companies that receive terrible, ranting reviews from customers. In many cases, it appears that the customer acted out of line and is refusing to accept responsibility. In other cases, a customer can write a fake review that is intended to damage the reputation of the restaurant. 

Luckily, popular review platforms such as Yelp have gotten stricter with ferreting out fake reviews, trying to limit the rants that angry customers may feel inclined to leave. However, a negative review can often be a fake or exaggerated experience that’s designed to make other customers stay away from a business.

Perhaps a customer did have a poor experience, but they don’t write the correct facts. Maybe they ask ten of their friends to also write negative reviews for the business in an effort to drive the company’s rating down. Whatever their vengeance plan may be, this can be damaging.

This is particularly concerning for veterinary clinics. Let’s say that a client has a sick pet that must be taken to an emergency clinic for care. The client has a positive outcome, but they are upset to find that the prices of the emergency clinic are more than their usual vet. While this is to be expected, this client takes a strong objection to the concept. Because of this, the client sets out on a warpath and tags the clinic on social media in a long, ranting post about how the clinic is run by crooks and only wants money from its customers.

Sound a little familiar?

In these instances, a few more negative reviews may pop up “in support of” the original client. But in some cases, these reviews are left by people who have never patronized that clinic before. Now, the clinic is left to deal with the damaged online reputation — and studies show that customers repeatedly prefer businesses with strong reputations — left behind by these inaccurate reviews.

So how can a clinic effectively combat this issue? On one hand, there will always be the occasional customer who is just impossible to please. And in the case of pet care, emotions can often run high and cause otherwise rational people to lash out. Bearing this in mind, it’s important that a clinic’s staff is highly trained in interpersonal communication and empathy, as these two can often go a long way to soothe any ruffled feathers.

Second, a business that responds to reviews, both positive and negative, may have more success in winning customers in the long run. So, if a disgruntled client leaves a negative review and recruits their neighbors to do the same, responding proactively, professionally, and calmly can go a long way to show other potential clients that you care about your clinic’s reputation and integrity.

The Pesky Competitor’s Fake Reviews

Another side of the fake review coin is the businesses that have no qualms soliciting reviews, fake or otherwise, in order to boost their online profile. This is problematic for other businesses in the same space because it can falsely inflate the ranking of the shady business over its competitors due to the sheer number of “positive” reviews.

In many areas, several veterinary clinics may share territory. In the shopping center around the corner from my house, there are two veterinary offices. Imagine if one of these clinics took a third party review company up on its too-good-to-be-true offer to boost the clinic’s Yelp rating. 

The result is often what flooded my Upwork inbox on any given day: businesses looking to pay freelance writers to write reviews for their clients. Remember: I was not a paying customer of any of the businesses seeking my review words. And yet, it didn’t matter. All they cared about was sticking another 5-star review up and watching their reputation score rise.

This creates false competition and also false expectations for new customers, which can be that much more damaging. Of course, competition is the nature of the beast, but it should be done in fairness and without buying fake reviews out of desperation. 

How can a veterinary clinic combat a competitor with a falsely inflated reputation score? Luckily, platforms like Yelp have taken strict stances against these false reports and encourage users to report reviews that appear to be fake. Platforms such as Google have slightly less squeaky clean reputations when it comes to policing fake reviews, but their algorithms are becoming more adept at filtering out the fake.

Fake reviews are a nuisance to businesses from many angles, which makes combating the issue a bit complicated. However, conducting business with integrity and inviting unbiased and truthful reviews can do a lot to bolster a clinic’s reputation. Managing this reputation takes time and effort, but putting the time in to do this correctly and without falsehoods will pay off in the long run. 

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