The UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority has published a report advising companies which use online product reviews as a marketing tool – and sites which provide such reviews to consumers – that deceptive practices could fall foul of industry regulations and put offenders at risk of unlimited fines, or even imprisonment.

The report [PDF] presents the results of the CMA’s call for information in February this year, and individuates four points of concern, namely: businesses writing or commissioning fake positive reviews about themselves; Businesses or individuals writing or commissioning fake negative reviews; review sites ‘cherry-picking’ positive reviews, or suppressing available negative reviews without any warning to readers; and review sites suppressing or obscuring negative reviews.

The scope of the report covers specialist review sites (i.e. sites where reviews are the primary motive for readership), and supposedly neutral commercial sites which provide the facility for customer reviews, such as amazon.com, as well as blogging sites, the output of video blogs and also microblogs on social media.

The findings declare that such practices ‘may breach the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the UK Advertising Codes’, in addition to preventing consumers from choosing the most suitable product or service.

Also noted are the incidents wherein individuals have used the threat of negative online reviews as blackmail tactics to inveigle products, services or discounts on these from suppliers or brands. This is particularly prevalent in the hotel and hospitality industry, with 55% of hospitality sector respondent believing that a single review had caused harm to their business.

‘We have received a number of allegations that indicate a number of consumers are misusing reviews to gain some personal benefit. These consumers may be using the threat of a poor review to ‘blackmail’ businesses into providing some concession, such as a price discount. We consider it is helpful for review sites to address this by allowing businesses to report ‘blackmail’ threats,’

The study also addresses corruption in the blogging/vlogging world, and suggests that online taste-makers are not immune from the same statutory regulations as govern business, if they are accepting direct payment or equivalent payment in goods, services or hospitality in return for granting favourable comment on a product to their audiences. The CMA’s research indicated that 6% of the purchasing decisions of UK consumers are influenced by blogs and vlogs.

‘Professional bloggers, vloggers and other online publications, who derive an income from their activities or are regularly paid to endorse goods and services may need to comply with the CPRs,’

The report notes additionally the problem of old or stale reviews applying a market advantage to newer products or versions which may not be inspiring the same favourable reviews.

‘We have seen that some review sites have taken steps to address the issue by, for example: removing reviews that businesses can show are obsolete, allowing users to see a business’s average rating over different timeframes, or discounting the impact that older reviews have on ratings (so a newer review counts for more than an older one). We consider it would be helpful for review sites to have appropriate policies to address this issue,’

The report cites research [PDF] from Igniyte which found that among 500 business owners and decision makers an average loss of £46,815 ($74,039) was attributable to ‘damaging content’ online, although the report did not distinguish between negative reviews and positive reviews for competitor products.

The practice of pre-publication moderation also draws the report’s attention; though the findings admit that a ‘cooling off’ period between negative review submissions and final availability to the public may not be without general benefit, it allows the possibility that certain review sites are abusing the process unduly and without even-handedness between the needs of reviewers and the desire of the companies producing the product.

However the report emphasises that the significant majority of online consumers in the UK do not find disparity between reviews of products they proceeded to buy, and their own experience of the product.

By way of precedent a number of illustrative examples of review malfeasance are included in the length appendix, including the Advertising Standards Authority’s findings that popular review site TripAdvisor was misleading readers by claiming in an ad that it provides ‘Reviews you can trust’, since the site does not extensively moderate or investigate reviews that are published therein.