Consumers are being misled by dubious practices in online reviews and endorsements, while more than half of buyers of services are swayed by them, according to an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
The findings will make interesting reading for solicitors contemplating using a ‘trusted reviews’-type comparison site for marketing, although those that have done so will take some comfort from the traction that online reviews have gained with the public.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel welcomed the report as a useful step on the road to introducing best practice in comparison websites. Last year the panel launched its own good practice standards .
The CMA report listed potentially misleading uses of review and endorsement websites as being:
- Fake reviews being posted on review sites;
- Negative reviews not being published; and
- Businesses paying for endorsements in blogs and other online articles without this being made clear to consumers.
The report estimated that £23bn of consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews, and that 54% of UK adults use the reviews and 6% blogs or vlogs (video blogs) before making purchases. Most buyers who used online reviews and endorsements found the product or service they bought matched up to their expectations.
The CMA has opened an investigation into a number of unnamed companies in connection with the potential non-disclosure of paid endorsements, using its consumer enforcement powers. It has also published documents  summarising how businesses can comply with consumer protection law on online reviews and endorsements.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel spokeswoman said: “The panel welcomes the report from the CMA as a helpful and interesting contribution to the debate about how comparison websites can improve consumers’ ability to make informed choices.
“We have previously… written about the added value of online review sites and comparison sites [and] raised questions about what can be done to ensure that the consumer voice is not stifled so that consumer choice is enabled. The findings of this report support those ideals.
“While the use of comparison sites among legal services consumers remains low at present, this report paves the way for established best practice as the use of comparison and review markets expands.”
Adam Price, the founder of VouchedFor, which says it has the details of “well over 2,000 solicitors” listed on its site, said: “We like the CMA report because it will make other review sites live up to the high standards we have always set ourselves. We show every review for a solicitor or other professional except for those we cannot verify are from genuine clients, or those which are abusive.
“We have thorough checks for fake reviews [and] are transparent about our commercial relationships, explaining that by default our search results show professionals who pay us to be contactable through the website, while also explaining how users can quickly find non-paying and non-contactable professionals too.”
A Law Society spokeswoman said: “Consumer trust in comparison sites is vital as decisions are often influenced by online reviews. We have always recommended that consumers seek recommendations about the best solicitors in their area or for their legal issue, who are trusted for their skill, expertise and value for money.
“The concerning practices that the CMA has identified underline the value of accreditation schemes such as [the Conveyancing Quality Scheme and the Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme] which provide solicitors with another tool to set themselves apart from other providers and harness the very considerable power of the Law Society brand.”