Building and growing an eCommerce agency has taught me more than I ever imagined it would've. I'm going to be writing more about these lessons and other interesting things I've learned over the years. First up - reviews, testimonials and references.
Vetting a potential vendor, partner or supplier is hard in the digital age. You'd think that the web would make this problem easier, but it's just introduced new challenges as well as new opportunities for dishonest actors.
I'm not going to pile onto the Yelp bashing bandwagon - there's enough articles out there that cover the problems with Yelp. Instead, I find it interesting to think through things as a customer trying to vet a potential vendor in the digital age. For instance - I occasionally talk to merchants who are considering hiring Creatuity or another Magento agency and they openly admit they aren't sure how they can vet a potential agency.
Many years ago, I wrote what in retrospect may have been a well-meaning but slightly aggressive article on the Creatuity blog called "Requesting References and Other Mistakes When Hiring a Web Developer". In that article, I call out the fact that generally no one is going to give you a reference to call that will say something negative about them.
So, if references are out, how do you determine if a company is legitimate? Many people Google for online reviews - i.e., searching for Creatuity Reviews or Magento Reviews, etc., before making a decision. Because if you find a lot of good (or bad) reviews online, and a large presence on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, then the business must be legitimate, right?
Wrong - as a journalist proved last year, it's possible to setup a completely fictional business, generate positive reviews on Yelp, a massive following on Facebook and Twitter and all of the other digital footprints of a successful, positive business. After seeing what some less ethical businesses have done online, I wasn't shocked by this article, but I was surprised at how easy it was for her to generate enough of a positive digital footprint for a business that never existed. She even produced photos of a happy customer in front of what appeared to be the business!
This story, combined with Amazon's recent move to ban incentivized reviews after many Amazon sellers completely manipulated Amazon's rankings and search results through these reviews has me more disillusioned than ever with online reviews and verifying the legitimacy of a product, service or company in the digital age. Combine this with the fact that at Creatuity we've caught competitors astroturfing fake support for their company and using the same tactics to negatively impact the online reputation of their competition, and I'm ready to swear off reviews altogether!
So, what's a person to do? The journalist who created the fake business said that she was only going to trust online reviews from people she personally knew and trusted. Given just how much shopping I do online, I don't think I know enough people to be able to use my personal network to learn about the merits of every product or service I'm considering! For larger purchases, potential vendors and partners, I'm going 'old school' to a degree - I'll be looking to conferences and other in-person events to meet and vet potential vendors. While some of these events are also pay-for-promotion, there are still good events out there that offer the opportunity to collect unsolicited, unbiased feedback on vendors.
For smaller purchases, I've been experimenting with the tool FakeSpot to identify which products have genuine reviews on Amazon. Sadly, the vast majority of the products I've checked have scored a D or F on FakeSpot.
What challenges have you faced while vetting products or services online? How do you go about determining if a product or service is legitimate? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.