The Ethics of Managing Online Reviews 

I had an interesting conversation with a prospective customer this morning. Let’s call him John.

John runs a successful business since 1982 and has thousands of happy clients.

Their business received a few negative reviews online. This is affecting their business as they are struggling to gain new clients.

John wanted us to post a few positive reviews on their behalf to push down negative reviews.

I tried to explain to John that not only is this ethical it could be illegal as well.

John didn’t agree to this and in his opinion there was nothing illegal in this approach. He believed that he was in his rights to publish fake reviews.

According to John, all he had to do was the following:

  • Create new email ID’s across various free email platforms like Gmail
  • Create new reviewer accounts on the review website
  • Publish new reviews on behalf of the business

I advised John that this is duping his prospective customers. He was giving people false testimonials.

John was not happy to listen to my advice and became a bit aggravated.

At that point I said to John that I am unable to help him and it is against our business practise. John disconnected.

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Fake Reviews: Unethical and Illegal

Publishing fake reviews can be damaging for an organisation’s reputation.

The purpose of review site is to generate new leads for a business. Reviews help customers make a more informed decision about the product and services offered.

Most logical customers understand that no business has 100% satisfied customers. They also understand that many a times a customer may have unrealistic expectations.

Bad reviews are an opportunity for business to show how they deal with unhappy customers.

Publishing fake reviews take this opportunity away.

With fake reviews, you are misguiding your customers and portraying a false picture. Needless to say, this is unethical and misleading. They can also lead to bad reputation.

The practise of publishing false review presents grave legal risks.

If caught publishing false reviews or testimonials, business can be prosecuted and fined by regulatory authorities.

In November 2011, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission serviced Citymove Pty Ltd fan infringement notice of $6,600.

According to ACCC website:

“The ACCC found that the testimonials were copied from an unrelated review website, altered and published on the Moving Review website.”

Citymove  then used contractors to populate the new Moving Review website with the altered testimonials.
ACCC also took an action against the Franchisor of the Electrodry carpet cleaning business, A Whistle & Co (1979) Pty Ltd for posting fabricated reviews.

The franchisor was take to the Federal court of Sydney and found that Electrodry posted, and requested that its Franchisees post false customer testimonials. It was also found that those customers were fabricated and no service was provided.

The court ordered A Whistle & Co (1979) Pty Ltd to pay total penalties of $215,000 for its involvement in the publishing of fake testimonials on the internet.

In the United State of America, there have been quite a few cases where a business was fined for publishing fake reviews:

  • Lifestyle Lift had to pay a settlement of $300,000 in costs to state of New York for publishing fake reviews
  • Legacy Learning Systems was fines $250,000 by the FTC for organising paid reviews

Many states in US have passed legislation, making self reviews of a business illegal.

False reviews also impede on an organisations ability to learn and grow

False reviews take the organisation’s mindset away from fixing the problems they may have. Their total focus is on suppressing those reviews and hiding their problems.

Customers want to see how a business deals with complains. Good operators use this opportunity to convert disgruntled customers into champions.

Negative customer reviews do not always hurt your business if you take care in handling them.

Also customers trust positive reviews more when they see negative reviews with positive reviews.

Customers rely on online reviews to make purchasing decisions. You as a business must ensure that they are not misled about your business by fake reviews.

Customers expect that every business will have some negative reviews. They realise that every customer has different expectations.

Consumers do not mind seeing a few bad reviews against a business. They can also differentiate between a false negative review and a genuine review.

Consumers understand the difference between a review that provides genuine feedback and a resentful review.

Smart operators can use negative reviews to their advantage.

They provide a tactful and apologetic response to an unhappy customer.

A good response to a negative review opens communication between the business and the customer.

Opportunity to Learn and Improve

Genuine complains give business owners and opportunity to learn and improve. They can identify where there business struggles and what their customers think.

Take an example of a prominent and much awarded Italian restaurant in Sydney. Looking at most of their reviews, it is clear that most customers are happy with their food. However, the business does get harsh feedback about their staff and customer service.


Most complaints are about customer service and the attitude of the staff members.

Owners of the restaurant can use this insight to take their business to the next level by taking stock of these complaints.

They have to focus on improving their customer service, better educate and train their staff.

Open a Communication Channel

Shrewd business operators use bad reviews as an opportunity to communicate with unhappy customers.

They use this opportunity to wrong the right and convert the unhappy customer into a long term client.

Here is an example of how world famous restaurant Wolfgang Puck responded to a social media review from a customer.

In another example, Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco received a bad review from a customer. The review in itself was genuine and provided real feedback about the customer’s experience.


In response the restaurant replied with eloquence and reason.

They started with apologising for the bad experience the customer had and thanking her for the feedback.

After that they went through each point raised by the customer and provided a carefully worded response. Not only they agreed with the customer but also informed them on what they are doing to fix the issue.


The restaurant’s response highlights the following about the business to the reader:

  • They value customer’s opinion and are willing to take the feedback provided on-board
  • They are willing to accept their mistakes
  • They are keen on improving their offering
  • They want the customer to come back

After reading the response, anyone who believes giving people a second chance will go back to the restaurant.

Fake or misleading reviews

So what type of reviews are termed as fake or negative reviews?

In my opinion the following type of reviews can be listed as misleading:

  • Reviews written by staff members or family members of the business without identifying the relationship between the reviewer and the business
  • Positive reviews solicited from customers in return of a reward or discount. Rewarding customers for a review with the same benefit for both positive or negative review is not misleading
  • A paid review written on behalf of the business by a contractor

Reviews on platforms where business can manipulate how reviews are displayed without declaring the commercial relationship

At this point it should be pointed that businesses can also be negatively affected by fake reviews. Some examples where fake reviews can harm the business are:

  • Reviews posted by disgruntled employees to harm the business
  • Reviews posted by competitors to harm the business reputation and to gain from their disrepute
  • Reviews posted by customers with malice as a motive

Sometimes these reviews actually lead business’ to create or solicit fake reviews.

Most of these (negative) fake reviews use strong language and can be stressful. Yet, to be ethical and legal, businesses should refrain from creating positive fake reviews.

In most cases when people see a negative review they hit the panic button.

Reviews (Good and Bad) are normal

Do not hit the panic button when you see a negative review.

Take a deep breath and think how you can use it your advantage. A bad review is your opportunity to learn from your mistakes and understand how can you improve your business.

Reviews in the world obsessed with Social Media are normal. If you offer good customer service and/or quality product, you will find that you will overtime have more positive than negative reviews.

Tanuj Rastogi

Reputation Management Strategist & Online Marketer passionate about helping business achieve the best out of Internet by building Positive Reputation, a successful Online Crisis Management Plan & clever Online Marketing Strategies.

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