As every business owner knows, online reviews can be terrifying due to the lack of control you have over what strangers might say about your business. We’ve written about some practical tips on dealing with negative reviews here.

Consumers are relying more and more on online reviews in their purchasing decisions—it’s why you have to try to be nice to every reviewer no matter how unreasonable their expectations may be. 

It is natural to want to control the public face of your business. But are you allowed to alter or delete the reviews people have posted online about your business? Could this be considered misleading or deceptive conduct? 

In this article we’ll explore the legalities of altering and deleting online reviews. We’ll also address whether it’s okay to incentivise customers to leave online reviews. 

Is It Illegal To Delete Or Alter Bad Reviews?

First up, misleading conduct is illegal. According to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, “if the total body of reviews doesn’t reflect the opinions of consumers who have submitted the reviews consumers may be misled.” 

This means businesses that delete or alter reviews could actually be misleading customers.

This is why it is important to state in your Website Terms & Conditions the circumstances under which reviews can be removed and posted. The more accessible this information is, the less likely it is to be misleading to consumers. However, T&Cs can’t totally safeguard your business from liability if you’re engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct. 

A recent example of alleged misleading and deceptive conduct occurred when HealthEngine, a booking service for General Practitioners, was found to have not published 17,000 reviews people had left regarding doctors they’d visited. 

Plus, HealthEngine had changed over 3,000 customer reviewers before publishing them. The changes were so substantial that negative parts of the review were often completely removed, with the published versions being considerably different to the original reviews left by a user. 

As a result, the Federal Court ordered HealthEngine to pay $2.9 million in penalties for having engaged in misleading conduct. 

Can You Incentivise Customers To Leave A Review?

It is risky to offer incentives to customers to leave a review as it could lead to misleading and deceptive conduct. But you can incentivise customers, so as long as:

  • These incentives are prominently shown to consumers who rely on your reviews
  • The incentives are available to everyone, including consumers who are just as likely to leave a negative review
  • You treat all reviews the same
  • You make it clear to the consumer the incentive is not dependent on whether their review is good or bad

Is It Illegal To Leave Fake Reviews?

Don’t do it! It is illegal to leave up reviews that you know are fake. This is because fake reviews could understandably mislead customers. 

You should avoid publishing:

  • Reviews that are presented as genuine but were really authored by your business itself
  • Reviews written by anyone receiving a reward to write a positive review 
  • Reviews written by people who haven’t actually used your business 
  • Fake reviews written by a competitor.

As best practice, you shouldn’t ask people to leave a review for your business unless they’ve actually been a customer of your service. Don’t ask a customer to write a review that doesn’t represent their experience. And, if the reviewer is someone you know well, they should state that they are a family member or friend in the actual review. 

What To Take Away…

To treat your customers right, and to avoid breaking the law, you shouldn’t mess with genuine online reviews. Misleading and deceptive conduct is serious, and can lead to heavy fines and penalties for your business. 

If you’re not sure whether your conduct is misleading, or if you’d like to know more about what to include in your T&Cs, chat to one of our contract lawyers. You can contact us on 1800 730 617 or via email at team@sprintlaw.com.au for a free consultation.

About Sprintlaw

Sprintlaw is a new type of law firm that operates completely online and on a fixed-fee basis. We’re on a mission to make quality legal services faster, simpler and more affordable for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

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