Thursday, 10 October 2013

Can consumer protection save the Internet from a trust crisis?

The Internet utopians dreamed of a flourishing consumer democracy where users rated purchases and passed on discoveries.  But CI UK Member Which? is set to use a verified comments model on its website, as wider concerns grow over manipulative marketing methods. Our Digital Editor Vik Iyer investigates.

Websites like Amazon and Trip Advisor get millions of visitors thanks to their pioneering user review models .

The power of these services is now a major factor in our buying decisions. One study has shown 82% of consumers check online user reviews before making a purchase.

But it appears some of that information could have been manipulated by Orwelian  sounding ‘click farms’ which employ people on low pay to ‘upvote’ particular products or services. There is even software that produces phantom reviews.

So can we trust them and what role do consumer organisations play in all this?

Mike Seery, Head of Digital and Chief Technology Officer at Which? said: “The online space is noisier because now users can review products. I think for consumer organisations the bigger picture is actually telling consumers that our work is better because we test products side by side.

“Consumer organisations deliver properly researched objective views. We are providing more than opinions – these are the facts.

“We need to show why we are different and highlight the reliability of information from an established consumer organisation.”

Which? also wants to use a verified comments platform on its website because that can deliver something different – and useful – to its audience.

Reevoo  - the system Which? is using - will enable it to deliver ‘real world’ feedback to its readers and supporter s from people who have purchased and are using  a particular product.

In fact, user review models are already starting to fall foul of consumer protection guidelines, says Edwin Bos,  User Experience VP at Reevoo .

He said: “The model used by the Trip Advisor’s of this world is on the way out – it will happen in the next few years. They might be able to survive in the future but they will have to adapt.

“In France they have regulations which state that consumer reviews have to have evidence that the reviewer has experienced the product. The UK is lagging but it is a matter of time. The US is going after companies that explicitly solicit fake reviews.”

Under the Reevoo model, consumers are asked to provide reviews four to six weeks after they have bought something.

Bos said that he saw consumer organisations as partners rather than competitors.

This is because he believes they offer complementary rather than rival services.

Reevoo reviews come from consumers who might be comparing new products with old products.

Which?  tests products thoroughly, “side by side” but  does not currently have the volume of reviews that user-generated feedback can provide.

But user generated feedback is not the only area of concern over the fast growing ‘blackhat’ marketing industry.

Social media is also being used to create false impressions through the ‘buying’ of likes or follows.

A recent television programme in Britain on the subject generated much discussion in the UK marketing industry.

So far the consumer movement has stayed largely away from monitoring or evaluating social media profiles but, once again, consumer protection regulations may also widen to cover practices in this area too.

The Internet is relatively young – yet it clearly has an extraordinary power to redefine reality. It’s too early to say exactly how consumer organisations will adapt in this new environment, but there remains strong confidence that expert testing and knowledge will continue to have a value in a virtual world struggling to preserve trust.

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