Online reviews can be a divisive idea among marketers. Some welcome the user-generated keyword-rich content and increased transparency. Others argue that they have to be censored or you risk negative comments and even legal challenges.
So who’s right? This article takes a look at why you’d benefit from publishing reviews, what the risks are and how to mitigate them.
The rise and rise of UGC
UGC, or user-generated content is a fairly recent phenomenon of web marketing, and serves several of the major demands of SEO (at least in terms of how Google defines ‘optimised’ website content).
For a start, reviews are helpful to other visitors to your website – as long as they are honest. They offer an independent assessment of the quality of a product or service. No material written directly for marketing purposes can inspire that much trust.
Updating a page by posting a new review onto it shows Google (and other search engines) that the page and the website as a whole are still ‘alive’. Regularly updating a website is still one of the best ways to get it to the top of the search rankings.
On top of all of these things, like any text content added to your website, reviews contain plain, search-visible text; it may not be professionally keyworded or optimised, but it can still help you to rank higher for product names, and associated technical terms and phrases.
What are the risks?
One of the reasons why UGC is so popular is that it seems very low-risk – once you’ve added the capability to write reviews to your website, each user who posts their opinion is effectively providing you with search-visible content for free.
However, there are some downsides to consider – and these can be quite significant concerns. It can be especially risky for big brands that are in the public eye, or for firms that are subject to any special regulation or authorisation.
If you’re a law firm, financial adviser, or similar organisation, allowing UGC on to your site might be particularly risky – and you’ll often see even the discussion pages of such websites placed behind a gateway page warning that nothing published there should be taken as financial or legal advice.
For any website, though, you might want to take measures to ensure nobody can use your review section to trash-talk your suppliers, partners or competitors – you don’t want to find that a company suddenly refuses to supply you, or that a competitor has taken offence to a user comment and launched legal action against you.
Liability in terms of UGC can be a complex topic and, if you’re not sure, it’s worth consulting a specialist solicitor who can advise you on any recent developments in what is clearly a fairly young area of the law.
Generally speaking, you should expect to bear at least some responsibility for any content that appears on your site – which is why pre-moderation of comments (whereby they must be approved before they appear at all) is a popular option, and typical of major brand websites.
However, if you moderate comments, it implies that you read them – which can actually increase your liability with respect to potentially libellous comments and reviews.
An entirely unmoderated approach may leave you with more plausible deniability when contentious reviews are posted, but it’s likely that you’ll want at least some control over what can and cannot be said on your site.
What are the options?
Putting aside the legal issues and focusing on the technical aspects of posting reviews, there are several steps you can take to exert some degree of control over what your users can say.
Limiting them to certain options – such as a five-star rating – is one straightforward way to allow feedback without the risks of posting free-text, unmoderated reviews. However, it also means you won’t benefit from the search-visible text that full reviews create.
As mentioned above, a pre-moderated approach gives you total control over your site, but needs constant attention to prevent a backlog of reviews from building up.
Take the option of moderating reviews after they are published, and again you need to be careful, as anything contentious requires prompt action to stop it from reaching a large audience.
Finally, you might want to set up alerts for when certain words are used in your reviews – from expletives, to competitors’ or suppliers’ names – so that you can moderate only the reviews you believe may be contentious.
The main thing to remember is that, whichever option you choose, allowing UGC on to your website introduces a certain lack of control, which you must find a way to compensate for – and that inevitably means there will be an administrative burden.
Reviews gone rogue
On top of everything we’ve already discussed, there’s one more concern associated with UGC – and that is the rogue reviewer, the renegade individual who decides to post an entirely satirical comment on one of your product pages.
You may have seen an example of this on Amazon, where everything from hair removal creams for men, to Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men children’s books, have been targeted by satirical reviewers, and subsequently done the rounds on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Depending on the type of industry you operate in, you might actually welcome ‘going viral’ in this way – and certainly the reviews are not always offensive, but often simply take an unusual approach to reviewing an otherwise mundane product.
Indeed, many satirical reviews adopt an overwhelmingly positive stance on the product – originally for comedic effect, but often with an unintended positive impact on the reader’s perception of the item.
Alternatives to reviews
If you’re worried about welcoming people’s opinions of your products in a clearly critical way, there are some alternatives.
Rather than accepting reviews, you might want to add a more general ‘comments’ section, as you might find at the end of a blog post.
This still gives your customers somewhere to leave their feedback, but in more general terms – so you don’t face the unfortunate outcome of a product page dominated by a one-star customer rating.
Instead, a general comments section means those customers who have encountered a problem with the product can raise their concern, and you have a right to reply – as do any helpful visitors to your page who think they might be able to solve the problem themselves.
As a result, future visitors can see that aftercare is all part of your service, and that any previous customers’ problems have been effectively resolved, all of which can help to increase your chances of making a sale.
Entire websites and product support forums have been set up based on this principle of problem-and-solution posts between customers of varying levels of experience and aptitude, making it a significant area of UGC for the internet as a whole.
Take a look at your own site – the layout of each product page, or the availability of sections such as a discussion forum where reviews could be posted, and decide on the best way to invite UGC on to your pages, whether it is appropriate to do so, and how to mitigate the risks.
Remember, like any major change to your website, it can often be best to conduct a limited trial run, and then reassess your levels of success for the long term.