The story so far:
On Monday, the Department of Consumer Affairs issued guidelines to curtail fake and deceptive product and service reviews on e-commerce websites. Work on the framework titled, ‘Online Consumer Reviews – Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication’, began in June, when a committee was set up comprising industry stakeholders and consumer organisations. The standards were enforced on November 25 and apply to any platform which publishes consumer reviews online.
Why are guidelines necessary?
LocalCircles, a community research platform and part of the committee that drafted the guidelines, had 64% respondents in its survey acknowledging they consult reviews at all times, 26% occasionally, 7% only for expensive products with the remainder refraining.
Of late however, there have concerns about the integrity of these reviews. There are complaints ranging from manufactured positive reviews by sellers or negative reviews by a competitor, engagement of “online reputation management” companies for improving reviews to a trust deficit in websites allegedly exercising bias for certain products by filtering out either negative or positive reviews.
Moreover, companies have both penalised and incentivised consumers for writing negative and positive reviews respectively. The trust deficit was also affirmed in the same survey that had 80% respondents stating they purchased a product seeing higher reviews only to be left disappointed – at least once.
How do the guidelines deal with ‘fake’ reviewers?
The crackdown on ‘fake’ reviews will have to begin by establishing the credentials of the author and their experience. This is also in the context of how consumers with their newfound status as ‘public critic’ advance positive reviews for certain returns.
The guidelines state that user authentication is to be done either through email, telephone call, SMS, single sign-on and/or captcha system among other methods.
Without acknowledging the terms and conditions of the website, and providing an email or telephone number, users will not be able to write reviews. The website has to make certain that all systems have anti-fraud mechanisms in place to protect personal data from internal and external fraud.
How will reviews be moderated?
The central idea is to ensure that the experiences are genuine. This would be ascertained through authors’ activities such as frequency of writing reviews, history of contributions, location and use of language. The text must not contain profanity, illicit content, unintelligible content and reveal the author’s identity, especially because the review could also be done anonymously. Reviews must also mention the date of publishing so that readers are able to identify the more recent reviews irrespective of the website’s default filter.
All reviews whether positive or negative are to be dealt with similar standards and operandi. This would particularly tackle negative reviews from being filtered out. The filtering particularly bothers consumers who do not have any space to share grievances because their complaints with the product arose after the return window had closed. Thus, the ‘experience’ criterion would have to consider this aspect too for soliciting reviews.
Overall, violations would not only result in the particular review being removed. Other reviews on the site will be marked for scrutiny and they may be disallowed from carrying reviews on the platform again.
Will it make reviews and ratings reliable?
The reliability and consistency of the moderation process can be assessed using random sampling and survey methods (through interviews or written surveys), other than planting ‘pretend reviews’ for testing purposes on their platform.
Founder and CEO of LocalCircles, Sachin Taparia told The Hindu, “I am bullish about it and I think it is good and will evolve with time. The Government will have to play an active role in ensuring compliance for the next 3-5 years, and then make this mandatory or take a middle path to certify compliant companies.” However, reputed companies may not wait for it to be made mandatory.
According to him, the guidelines would ensure that negative reviews on e-commerce platforms are not removed without reason, thus, ensuring customers are apprised of the problems sooner.
In turn, this could also keep a check on a prevailing tendency among sellers to re-list products that had to be taken down because of lower ratings.
As for restaurant aggregators, Mr. Taparia observes that the mechanism in the space is partially transparent. However, the process for reviewing specific items in a restaurant’s food menu is “not transparent at all” and will have to be re-moulded.
Finally, for platforms like Google and Meta, the validation guidelines would, over time, erase accounts created solely for fake reviews.