Separating Critics From Charlatans on Web 2.0

Trust remains a critical component of today’s online economy. By its very nature, the Web 2.0 phenomenon factors into consumer or enterprise trust, as it can cloud judgments over what is and what’s not trustworthy online.

Web 2.0 applications are typically lightweight and nimble, with slick user interfaces that can bridge consumer and professional worlds. However, as Web 2.0 transforms communication from a one-way push into a more visible and immediate two-way dialogue, control is another issue to factor into trust.

The increased visibility of user-generated content — and the rapidity with which it can be posted and, in turn, consumed — has fueled today’s Web 2.0 environment, enabling millions of consumers to post anonymous reviews and feedback on blogs, forums and consumer ratings sites.

The issue with the “anonymizing” of consumer-generated content, particularly on popular Web sites (or sites deemed credible in some way) is that without the authentication inherent in real customer feedback, a business’ reputation may suffer in the absence of any method for countering a post other than, perhaps, a counter-post. What good is a counter-post, though, if a potentially negative post already exists? Given today’s technology — and given today’s complex business environment — companies of all sizes should take an inventory of the Web tools that have worked for them. They should also look at new tools that can help them engage with customers and benefit in multiple ways from ANY review.

The Business Impact of Unauthenticated Postings

Although viral, or word-of-mouth, referrals have traditionally been a major method of business growth, their impact has intensified on the Web. The Internet has produced certain sites that allow any person with a keyboard and a connection to post an anonymous opinion on a particular company. Take a business, for example, that has received negative comments somewhere — say on a site likeYelp orAngie’s List. That negative post remains in cyberspace for anyone to view, and the business typically doesn’t have an opportunity to counter that post. Moreover, the business can suffer tremendously. A huge number of consumers peruse online reviews before making purchasing decisions, and the business could lose a tremendous number of sales as a result of potential customers reading the negative post.

Businesses have little recourse. There’s no way to tell if a customer is legitimate or not, and most businesses don’t even know who their detractors are. Additionally, more and more businesses find themselves asking, “How can I be a part of these conversations and make sure that those postings are by people who actually have had an experience with my business?” This is an issue that many companies, even the savviest in working with Web tools, ask constantly.

It is more important than ever to establish an environment of trust between businesses and consumers.

Loyalty and Authentication Are Key

All businesses and consumers have a need for useful, constructive, authentic feedback. It allows businesses to learn and grow from their customers; it allows consumers to make better purchasing decisions. Still, unauthenticated user-generated reviews aren’t beneficial for anyone — business or consumer.

Doesn’t it make sense that customers who are truly real and have taken the steps to actually submit feedback about a business would want share their identities with the business? It seems this would be especially true for those who have had negative experiences. From a business perspective, the customers who authenticate themselves before posting reviews and feedback provide an easy way for the business to reach out to them and resolve any dispute that may exist. Authenticated reviews also can help prevent fake and biased reviews, as well as malicious comments by competitors and others trying to “game” the review system.

Authenticating user-generated content could be as simple as requesting an e-mail address and validating that it’s real. Or, if someone wants to submit a less-than-positive review or comment about a company, simply requesting an e-mail or providing a level of phone authentication.

On the server side, there are several mechanisms that can be used — such as checking IP addresses and other algorithm-based authentication methods. While many businesses may not have the capability to do this, there are third-party services that can collect and validate consumer reviews and ratings. When done properly, authenticated customer feedback and consumer reviews can strengthen relationships between businesses and consumers, and create greater transparency in the marketplace.

Neal Creighton is cofounder and CEO ofRatePoint.

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