The FTC recently published a Staff Closing Letter it sent to counsel for Yotpo, Ltd., which provides e-commerce companies with services to manage their online customer reviews. At issue was whether Yotpo’s star-rating and sentiment filters provided its clients with the ability to “easily and deceptively” suppress negative product reviews and “mislead consumers that the reviews displayed accurately reflected the views of all purchasers who submitted reviews.”
The letter, though it indicates that no enforcement action would be taken, includes some important insights for marketers about how they should handle customer reviews…that is, if they are hoping to avoid FTC scrutiny.
First, the letter states that FTC’s decision not to recommend an enforcement action was based on several factors, including Yotpo’s commitment to implement measures to protect against the misuse of its review management services to suppress or delay the posting of negative product reviews. Specifically, Yotpo committed to implement “clear and prominent guidance to its clients on their need to promptly post reviews, including negative reviews.” Further, Yotpo committed to automatically post those negative reviews that are not promptly reviewed and acted upon by its clients. Interestingly, the letter also notes that a seller’s services includes its customer service and how it deals with delivery, returns and exchanges, and that negative reviews addressing such services should not be suppressed by sellers.
The letter also addresses those reviews that the FTC does not believe sellers must display, namely: customer reviews that contain unlawful, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, or sexually explicit content or content that is inappropriate with respect to race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity, so long as the criteria for withholding reviews is applied uniformly to all reviews submitted. Sellers also are not required to display reviews that are “unrelated to their products or services.”
The use and abuse of customer reviews has been front of mind for legislators, regulators and commissioners, self-regulators , competitors and consumers alike and the issue of how best to handle them is an evolving one. Here are the some of the best practices to be gleaned from these laws, enforcement actions and cases:
Do: Be even-handed in how you deal with reviews, positive and negative. Have guidelines. If you’re going to take down a negative review, there should be a good reason other than that it is negative. If you reward consumers for providing reviews, make sure you disclose that reviews are incentivized and don’t condition receipt of the incentive on providing only a positive review. If out-sourcing review management to a vendor, make sure their policies and practices comply with the same principles.
Don’t: Prevent or punish posting negative reviews. Don’t make a review page appear to be complete if it’s not. Don’t manipulate legitimate reviews and ratings to make the product or company appear more highly rated than it is. Don’t get friends, relatives and employees to post reviews without disclosing their connection or have them manipulate ratings (including “helpfulness” of review ratings). And don't have them post unless they're real users of the product and will be honest in their reviews. Don’t hire vendors to do things with your reviews that you can’t do yourself.
(Description of image for visually-impaired readers: drawing of hand plucking one star away from — or maybe adding to — a line of five stars.)