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Better Business Bureau ramping up online customer-review efforts

January 16, 2015
Consumer reviews now are part of everyday decision-making. Review websites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List have become increasingly popular over the past decade and now exist for nearly every product and service. 
Yelp alone contains more than 60 million reviews of restaurants, barbers, mechanics, and other services, and has a market capitalization in excess of $4 billion. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that these reviews have a direct influence on product sales.
But what of the reliability of those websites?
A study released in November by researchers from Harvard University and the Boston School of Management, "Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud," charges that roughly 16 percent of restaurant reviews on Yelp are fraudulent, and owners of small businesses have complained of Yelp’s practices, saying Yelp is slow to remove fake reviews or promotes negative reviews of businesses that don’t advertise on the site.
Officials from Yelp said earlier this month that the Federal Trade Commission had ended an inquiry of the company without taking action.
Enter the Better Business Bureau.
Imagine customer reviews like the ones on Yelp except that the reviews all are from real people who had actually used a product or service. No fake reviews from PR agencies or competitors are tolerated. No one is allowed to manipulate reviews to make businesses seem better or worse.
Sound too good to be true?
A program being rolled out nationally by the BBB is aimed at accomplishing this seemingly impossible task.
Katherine Hutt, a BBB spokeswoman, said online reviews in the process of being launched by the non-profit group are tied to the organization’s original mission. In an email interview, Hutt explained:
"For more than a century, the BBB has been all about fostering trust in the marketplace between businesses and consumers. What started out as a truth-in-advertising campaign in 1912 has grown to include dispute resolution, industry self-regulation, consumer education, and charity reports."
Hutt insists the BBB’s online reviews have more credibility because of the way they are screened.
As with the complaints it takes from customers, Hutt says the BBB employs a verification process for all reviews appearing on its sites.
Identities of reviewers are not shared with the public, said Hutt. But the BBB insists that all reviewers share their names and other details sufficient to verify that they are indeed customers of the businesses they are reviewing.
She says the information also is shared with the businesses being reviewed as part of the verification process, adding: "If a consumer cannot prove he or she is a real customer, we will not publish the review. … It’s as simple as that."
History of the Program
While the first BBB online review pilot program was launched back in 2004 (the same year Yelp was founded), it wasn’t until 2012 that it was announced as an option for local BBBs to implement. 
The BBB office overseeing Chicago and northern Illinois launched its Customer-Verified Review program in July 2014. On that first day, office President Steve Bernas said 13 consumers offered a review of a business or service — before the program had even been advertised locally.
During the first six months, Bernas said reviews are running about 60 percent positive to 40 percent negative.
When a consumer submits a review, Bernas said the BBB shares the review with the business to confirm the consumer was a customer. A business can respond to the review (the majority do), ignore the review, or challenge it. Reviews are posted online three days later.
Third-party comments are not permitted; only the reviewer and the business may add comments to a Customer-Verified Review. Also, a Customer-Verified Review is not part of the BBB rating formula and does not affect a company’s BBB letter grade.
Hutt said the organization’s careful benchmarking and exacting verification standards have caused it to move more slowly than many startups and has led to fewer reviews being published.