Some 85% of British hotels and restaurants have fallen victim to malicious and fake online reviews and many say that the reviews have then been used to blackmail them.
That's according to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), which surveyed its members and those of its associated body, the Restaurant Association.
The figure marks a 20-percentage-point increase on the last survey two years ago, in which 65% of operators said they had experienced the phenomenon.
The BHA said that the relentlessly fast growth of the online marketplace meant that regulations had not kept pace with new ways of doing business and that it was concerned about a lack of transparency for the consumer and the potential for very large global digital firms to stifle hospitality businesses' growth, over 90% of which are SMEs.
Nonetheless, hospitality businesses also recognised the importance of having a presence on the online reviews platforms. A total of 71% said they were useful for their business, with one respondent saying that "it's the only advertising worth having". However, that number had fallen by nine percentage points on the 2015 survey, which the BHA said may be related to the issues hospitality businesses are facing from fake negative and malicious reviews.
In a report on the survey, the BHA collected a host of comments about online review sites from anonymous operators around the country. One, in Scarborough, said: "Genuine reviews are good but someone who is just horrid or in a foul mood and puts bad things on can have a really bad effect on my business."
Another, in Henley, added: "My biggest concern is recently hearing that reviews can be bought from websites in Asia, notably in India. I have no concrete evidence but my source was adamant that it was happening."
Other findings from the BHA's survey included that online platforms were not perceived as helpful by businesses dealing with fake negative reviews, with more than 60% of respondents saying they were 'not helpful' or 'not very helpful'.
Meanwhile, half of businesses said that the threat of a bad online review had been used to blackmail them into giving a refund to the customer. When asked if review sites were helpful in dealing with these blackmail attempts, more than 60% respondents said that each of the most popular platforms used by customers were not helpful.
More than 65% of respondents to the survey said that transparency was a problem with website rankings based not on reviews but on complicated algorithms that the consumer is unaware of.
Digital Comparison Tools (DCTs) such as review sites have been the subject of a recent study by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA found that DCTs depend on consumer trust to provide a 'relevant and accurate' service. The CMA gives guidance on how to treat consumers fairly called CARE, which means DCTs should be 'clear', 'accurate', 'responsible' and 'easy to use'. The CMA has previously said it will continue to ensure that consumer law can be readily understood and applied by those providing DCTs and that it will take enforcement action when necessary.
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