The best way to rack up online reviews isn't by paying for them

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Photo: Thinkstock/leremy
Photo: Thinkstock/leremy

This quick-and-dirty attempt to bolster online ratings is like fast food: It might taste great at first, but it eventually comes back to haunt you, says the founder of Convince and Convert.

Online reviews can be a powerful ally. They increase the visibility of your product, making it more likely that customers will click "Add to Cart." It should come as no surprise that some companies have started to compensate customers for feedback, but paying for reviews does far more harm than good. 

Paid reviews diminish the reliability of authentic comments, ultimately discouraging future customers from providing feedback. A study published in Marketing Science demonstrated that when users were paid to post, the total number of reviews declined by 30 percent. 

This quick-and-dirty attempt to bolster online ratings is like fast food: It might taste great at first, but it eventually comes back to haunt you. Paying for reviews tarnishes your reputation and makes influencers less likely to share honest insights for fear of appearing biased. You're far better off racking up online reviews naturally.

The steep cost of paid reviews 

If a tarnished reputation and reduced consumer feedback aren’t bad enough, the worst-case scenario of paying for reviews could include legal ramifications. Compensating for reviews is against the terms of service for most platforms, and the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines bar the shady practice.

Vehicle shipper AmeriFreight found itself in hot water for charging customers a $50 fee for not providing reviews while rewarding customers who entered "best monthly reviews" contests. A lengthy investigation ensued, and the settlement mandated that AmeriFreight remove claims from its advertising that it was "top-ranked" and "highly rated."

Moreover, consumers will question the integrity of any brand that uses money to guarantee rave reviews. The Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, permanently closed in the aftermath of a massive review fiasco. The hotel threatened guests with a $500 charge for any negative reviews they—or members of their party—left online. Once a few prominent media outlets picked up on the story, the internet flooded the venue’s Facebook and Yelp pages with one-star ratings.

Too many positive reviews can also bite you. Many brands use paid reviews in an attempt to overcome negative comments, but this is short-sighted logic. A recent study by customer engagement platform Reevoo found that most consumers distrust overwhelmingly positive reviews. The study indicates that 68 percent of consumers trust reviews more when they see a combination of positive and negative feedback, and the inclusion of criticism increases conversion rates by 85 percent.

Instead of paying people—or threatening them with fines—to pull in positive reviews, focus on more organic growth.

How to rack up genuine online reviews

When building your review reserves, target quantity as well as quality. Some platforms emphasize a high overall rating, and others prioritize the overall number of reviews. These strategies can increase your online reviews to please both masters:

Solicit reviews during the customer experience.
Getting customer input is a matter of asking. People like sharing their opinions; they simply need to be prompted. BrightLocal found that 70 percent of customers are willing to write reviews for companies that ask them directly.

Servers and staff members can make personal connections when they ask customers to provide reviews. Instead of paying reviewers, you might incentivize your employees to refer the most customers. You can also take advantage of your checkout process and follow-up emails to solicit reviews.

Be specific in your ask.
Include a defined time horizon and specify the action you want customers to take. Consider the impact of saying, "Before you go to bed tonight, please review us on Yelp so you remember everything we did right and anything we could have done better during your stay." Customers will know exactly what they’re supposed to do, increasing your chances of receiving high-quality feedback.

Vary the suggested platform.
Balance your reviews among Google, Facebook and other sites. Each week, change where you ask customers to leave feedback so you’re able to amass reviews across several platforms. While you're at it, note the differences between review sites: Yelp discourages businesses from soliciting feedback, but Google and TripAdvisor have no such restrictions—yet another reason to diversify your ask.

Make it easy.
Give customers a specific URL where they can leave feedback. Print out cards for each platform that include step-by-step instructions. When people have to hunt around or navigate a complicated process, they often won't put in the effort. Keep your cards updated as interfaces and click paths on review sites often change.

To put it simply, paying for reviews doesn't pay. Instead of spending money to buy comments, invest those resources into soliciting honest feedback and improving your business. That’s a surefire strategy for earning positive reviews.

Jay Baer is the founder of strategy consulting firm Convince & Convert and the author of "Hug Your Haters."