You may have become aware of the rise in companies giving their customers the ability to review products or services purchased from them, the popularity of this arising following eBay’s and Amazon’s successes of buyers being able to review sellers or review products bought respectively. This has extended to other industries - and I am sure you all have your own views as to whether Trip Advisor provides a valuable platform for consumers.

There are now a number of independent companies and agencies that obtain reviews from customers on behalf of companies in order to make these available on a supplier’s website. However, there are a number of things of which to be aware if you are considering using one of these services.

Moderation rules and standards

One of the first things to consider when opening up your products or services to public customer scrutiny is what customers may or may not say in their review. It is important to have a clear set of rules and standards against which reviews should be moderated. Examples include purchase verification, to ensure that only customers who are able to demonstrate having purchased a particular product or service may leave a review; a mechanism to identify the individual who has posted the review (this may be by obtaining an email address or only allowing registered users to leave reviews); a declaration that the individual has no personal or business affiliation with the company for which they are leaving the review; confirmation that the review relates to their own personal experience; and that the review adheres to certain content standards (e.g. it does not contain any profanity, or racist, obscene or offensive remarks).

The moderation rules and standards should act as a filter. Although, to a certain extent, this can be done using automated software it is best that there is a human element involved in order to properly moderate any reviews submitted.

Data protection considerations

As we have so many online services these days, there is a data protection angle to consider when thinking about reviews that may be posted. For example, if someone had visited a particular shop, you may wish to exclude from reviews references that could identify an individual at that shop. Equally, if you are to permit photographs to be submitted as part of the review, it would be preferable that these were solely photographs of the product or service that is the subject of the review and exclude any photographs that contain images of people.

As part of the review will your users’ names and/or locations be displayed? If so, you need to ensure that you are making it clear to the user that this is the case and give them the opportunity to elect not to have their details displayed. In addition, if you are to do anything further with the information submitted, for example: analysis of the demographic of people leaving reviews, you would need to obtain the user’s consent to the processing of their data in this way.

Do you display all reviews or only those that are positive?

If through your moderation of reviews you end up not displaying any reviews that are negative of the relevant business, products or service, you may well fall foul of Advertising Standards regulations. You must make it very clear if the published reviews are limited to those that are of a positive nature. However, there is also a balancing exercise involved in that, particularly when collecting reviews on behalf of a third party, the reviews should not include those of a defamatory nature. There is nothing wrong with a negative review where that review is true or where it is the honest opinion of the reviewer.

Many companies may argue that a negative review is defamatory and use this as an argument to have a review removed. An objective approach should be taken to determine whether the review is actually defamatory or whether it is simply a negative opinion. Caution needs to be exercised, avoiding simply removing a review because the company that is the subject of the review argues that it is defamatory. There are a number of commercial points to consider when a business is either offering customers the ability to review your products or services or engaging a third party to perform this exercise on your behalf.

  • It is important to bear in mind the commensurate burden that may be involved in effectively moderating reviews and also responding to any complaints received regarding reviews.
  • You will need an effective system in place in dealing with and identifying any defamatory reviews.
  • Do you have the ability to respond or engage with reviewers after they have reviewed your product or service? If so, this can be an effective tool in dealing with any negative reviews. This is typically far more effective than simply removing them from your website.
  • There are often sound reasons to have an independent entity manage the service on your behalf to lessen the administrative burden on your business; one that has the requisite expertise.