If you've ever left your own review online of a product, restaurant, etc., you've probably wondered what impact, if any, your review would have.
Whether you knew it or not, all the way up through 2014, forces were at work trying to stamp out your review and others like it, especially unfavorable ones. In fact, if you were watching the topic of consumer reviews for the last few years, you probably thought, by 2016, consumers' ability to speak their minds about companies would be restricted, censored, and litigated nearly to extinction.
A report by Gartner projected that, by 2014, 10% to 15% of consumer reviews would be fake, funded by companies to artificially boost their online image.
Countless lawsuits had been filed by business owners-vacation rental owners, carpet cleaners, doctors, hoteliers, and more-against their own customers for unfavorable reviews. Many more were fining their customers for violating so-called "non-disparagement clauses."
Meanwhile, courts and legislators were waffling-some pro-consumer, some pro-business-over this new, undefined territory. Where they would eventually land was difficult to say.
But 2015, it turns out, came with some great news for you and other consumer reviewers like you. It was a watershed year for consumer reviews. As a result of some huge wins in 2015, consumer reviews are looking to be a more powerful force than ever before in 2016.
Here are five huge reasons why your reviews will be more powerful and more important in 2016 than ever before:
While previous years saw review sites, courts, and elected officials wringing their hands on the sidelines of the consumer review movement, 2015 saw them finally jump into the fray.
Yelp held strong in defending its users' anonymity against Hadeed Carpet in the landmark Virginia State Supreme Court case. Best of all, in April 2015, the court ruled that Yelp didn't have to give up its user information to Hadeed Carpet.
In another acknowledgement of the importance of consumer reviews, online retail giant Amazon went to war in October against sellers of fake reviews, filing a lawsuit against more than 1,000 people who had allegedly sold fake reviews on the site. But more about this later.
The last weeks of 2015 saw a major court ruling against company KlearGear who had fined a customer $3,500 because they posted a negative review after they never received their purchase.
And finally, in the same month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015. I've already covered this story in detail in my previous post, "Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015: 4 Reasons to Give Your Senator a High-Five," but while there are numerous pluses to this story, the biggest is that the entire Senate recognized the importance of preserving consumers' right to to free speech in reviews.
Consumer reviews are no longer the work of an insignificant minority of consumers. In fact, our recent Consumer Reviewer Survey found that nearly half (43%) of U.S. adults have posted a review in the last six months.
At the same time, consumers have more sites than ever for posting those reviews. Yes, mainstays like Amazon, Yelp, and Angie's List are still around, but countless new review sites have joined the fray. This includes ConsumerReports, TrustPilot, TripAdvisor, Google Business, Yahoo! Local Listings, and our very own The Best Companys. It also includes sites like VRBO, Expedia, and the sites of pretty much any major retailer which has integrated consumer reviews right into their sites.
You could even argue that all of the social media sites that now dominate our lives have become consumer review sites. In 2015, Facebook went all in on social media-based consumer reviews, for instance.
All of these developments point to the inevitable conclusion that consumer reviews are not going away. Instead, consumer reviews are everywhere-and they will become more widespread and more integrated than ever before with everything we do online.
Why are consumer reviews suddenly everywhere? Much of that is certainly due to the fact that consumers have come to depend heavily on reviews to make their purchasing decisions. It's just what we do now before we make important purchases.
Mom wants to know if a new pacifier is safe for her baby? She turns to product reviews.
Group of friends are looking for a trendy new place to spend their Saturday night? They turn to Yelp.
Family is trying to decide whether or not to have a solar system installed at their home? They scour the Web for online reviews about solar companies.
Just how widespread is this reliance on online reviews? A 2014 survey by BrightLocal found that 88% of consumers read reviews regularly. Just a year later, that number had jumped up to 92%.
And not only do they read reviews. They trust them. A lot.
The same survey found that 80% of consumers trust online reviews as much as they do personal recommendations from friends and family.
Of course, consumers' trust in reviews can only last if review sites keep those reviews authentic and unspoiled. Honestly, prior to 2015, the practice of buying fake reviews to help sell products and improve rankings on Amazon, for instance, was just accepted as part of doing business on the site. Review sites in general were struggling to keep fake reviews out. At the same time, the same BrightLocal survey found that the more concerned consumers were with fake reviews, the more their trust in reviews fell.
But finally in 2015, companies got serious about ferreting out and penalizing fake reviews. Leading the charge was Amazon itself, striking its first blow with a massive lawsuit against over 1,000 people selling fake reviews via Fiverr.
Other review sites, including Yelp, began more subtle initiatives to tamp down over-exaggerated, inaccurate, and false reviews by rejiggering its algorithm to recognize and devalue such reviews. Some sites, like The Best Companys, used sharp-eyed human moderators to recognize potentially false reviews and work with reviewers to verify their accuracy.
As more sites take steps to eliminate fake, untrustworthy reviews, consumer trust in-and the power of-reviews will only continue to increase in 2016.
The balance has shifted. Companies can't just pay a ton of money to saturate consumers in advertisements and then wait for them to line up. Consumers nowadays seem to come with an inherent distrust for companies, and that goes for their advertisements as well.
One Nielsen report found that 92% of consumers trust word-of-mouth from family and friends above any other form of advertising. One third said they trust the word of strangers on forums and blogs above ads. Suffice it to say, consumer reviews are quickly becoming much more powerful in convincing consumers to buy or not to buy.
In a world where marketers used to be able to buy the loyalty of their customers with more ads, marketers now have to work for consumers' trust. And then they need those customers to go to bat for them on reviews.
In 2016, then, we can expect to see companies give in to the power of reviews and beg their customers to leave positive reviews about them. We can also expect them to become much more responsive to negative reviews. That is, if they want to survive the age of the consumer review.
All of this leads to the inevitable fact that 2016 will be a very good year for consumer reviews and consumers like you. So keep leaving those reviews. Keep speaking up. Companies have no choice but to listen.