It’s been a practice that a number of businesses have carried out for years, but a decision in the Auckland District Court last month puts into sharp focus the importance, and indeed, the legal requirement of presenting website reviews honestly and accurately, and not discounting ones that are deemed negative, or not good enough. 

As reported by Anna Leask in the New Zealand Herald on the 11th of October, a prominent holiday accommodation booking company was charged by the Commerce Commission and pled guilty to misleading consumers under the Fait Trading Act. The charges concerned, editing deleting and omitting reviews that were considered less than favourable.

“It further revealed [the company] did not publish any reviews to which consumers had given a star rating of less than 3.5 out of 5. In doing so, the commission said [the company] engaged in conduct that was liable to mislead consumers by creating artificially positive impressions about certain properties.” (Source: “Holiday accommodation site admits misleading consumers”).

Creating a false impression leading to deception is obviously a serious situation, considering what is at stake, and while a perusal of many business’ websites and the testimonials contained within would suggest it is a common practice, it further signals that consumers may well be wary of the stories businesses chose to present. Furthermore it shows just how vital independent, third party review platforms are.

By the same token, it may soon arise whereby Google will be held to account for its review management and scrutiny, where obviously erroneous and suspect reviews are posted with little or no recourse.

The decision in the Auckland District Court indicates how far the Commerce Commission will go to hold presenters of questionable review profiles to account and it is a lesson to every business that cherry picks or amends reviews posted on their own websites.

A representative from the company was quoted in the New Zealand Herald, “These charges relate solely to the period from June 2017 to September 2018. We apologise wholeheartedly that this has happened. The reviews and ratings related only to a percentage of those on our site, however all star rating and review materials from this period have been permanently removed.

“We can confirm we have new practices in place, shared with the Commerce Commission which relate to all reviews on our site. We look forward to a resolution of this matter and are unable to comment further as the case continues to be before the court.” (Source: “Holiday accommodation site admits misleading consumers”).

Transparency and trust are everything to consumers, no matter the transaction or the information they are presented to be taken as accurate. Online reviews have to be honest and real, otherwise they have no value whatsoever, no matter where they are.

And more than that, it is never a good idea, or practice for a business to formulate and proffer a misleading perception of itself through a stage managed online reputation. While in this case, it is heartening to see the company accept charges and initiate changes to its online reviews, it is a sobering reminder to every other business in New Zealand to do exactly the same.