Online reviews: how to trust them?

Before buying from a German website, booking a hotel in Italy or choosing a restaurant in Spain, more and more consumers are consulting online reviews. Nearly 90% of you consult reviews published on a seller's website or on an online review platform (Google reviews, Tripadvisor, Facebook, Trustpilot...) before ordering or booking. But in the face of this success, many frauds have developed. Fake reviews, deletion of negative reviews... How to trust online reviews? This article explains the European and French rules concerning online reviews and gives you advice on how to distinguish real from fake reviews on the Internet.

 

What is an online review?

An online review is, according to the French Consumer Code, "the expression of a consumer's opinion on his or her consumption experience thanks to any element of appreciation".

You don't have to have bought a product, eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel to give your opinion. 

Please note! Sponsorships (e.g.: 25 € discount on your bill if you sponsor a friend and 20 € for your sponsored friend) or recommendations from a merchant site (e.g.: "Customers who bought this item also bought...") or expert opinions are not opinions in the sense of the Law.

"Unboxing" video: an advertising tool to be supervised!

An unboxing video is a type of video published on the Internet in which a person (who can be an influencer) films himself unpacking the product he/she has just bought and gives his/her first impression.

These videos have become very popular. They often provide basic information (size, appearance of the product...) but also a customer's opinion on their first experience with the product.

If brands or sellers use unboxing videos as an advertising tool and publish them on their websites, social networks or video platforms, they should be considered as online reviews and be regulated.

10 tips to distinguish real from fake reviews

Beware of:

  1. Short reviews, with no explanation of the experience. Ask yourself: if you were disappointed with a trader, would you just say "lousy service" or "bad salesman"?
  2. Ratings without any personal message about the quality of the products or services. 
  3. Similar reviews, posted one after another, with similar words or turns of phrase. They are usually written by the same person or company who may be the concerned trader or a competitor.
  4. Poorly written reviews, in approximate French. They may come from companies that are paid to constantly write fake reviews on a very large scale, or click on advertising links or "like" pages to influence you.
  5. Reviews published in a short period of time, while previous publications were more spaced out in time. This is very similar to a series of fake reviews to rebuild your reputation.
  6. Reviews that are too recent. A two-week experience does not prove the seriousness of a trader in the long run. If you can't find any other reliable information on this website, it is possible that it is a fraudulent site... that will close as quickly as it opened!
  7. Competitor reviews. Written in a denigrating tone, they usually simply advertise another website or seller.
  8. So-called "certified" reviews. Some websites use this term in a misleading way. While you can verify that the review is from a customer who has purchased the product, you can never certify the authenticity of the consumer's experience.
  9. Reviews posted by employees. Check a search engine to see if you can find a link between the reviewer and the promoted trader.
  10. Anonymous reviews, especially if all "5-star" reviews on this website are published by anonymous authors or with a pseudonyms.

Online reviews: what are the French rules?

Any website in French or targeting the French market, which collects, moderates or distributes online consumer reviews must comply with French regulations.

The French rules therefore apply as much to the French online seller, as to the French website of a seller based in another European Member state, as to a non-merchant site or as to a European online review platform, as long as consumer reviews are published there.

French regulations require traders to specify next to the published review:

  • The date of publication of the review and the date of the concerned consumer experience (date of the order for example) and any updates;
  • The existence or not of a review procedure;
  • The criteria for classifying the reviews (e.g. chronological classification).

They must also indicate, in a specific and easily accessible section;

  • The existence or not of a consideration in exchange for the notice;
  • The maximum period of publication or conservation of a notice.

If the website controls the reviews it publishes, it must also inform you about the way in which the reviews are controlled, the possibility of contacting the author of the review, the possibility or not of modifying a review and the methods for doing so and the reasons justifying a refusal to publish a review.

Good to know: online platforms with more than 5 million visitors per month must even publish a good practices guide.

Since May 28, 2022 and the transposition into French law of a European directive, the following commercial practices are prohibited in France:

  • the dissemination of false reviews,
  • the distribution of false recommendations to promote products,
  • not verifying that the consumer who posted the review has actually purchased and used it. 

A trader can display on its website the certification "AFNOR standard " NF.ISO 20488 ". This means that it respects the requirements and recommendations of the French Association for Standardization (AFNOR) on the management of reviews (collection, publication, moderation). This can therefore be a guarantee of trust. But always check on the AFNOR website that this trader is mentioned in the list of certified companies.

Fake Internet reviews banned across the EU

In order to be able to trust the opinions published on all European websites, the European Union has harmonised the rules to better protect consumers against false opinions, thanks to a European directive in principle transposed in each Member state since November 28, 2021.

Since May 28, 2022, any European trader who publishes online reviews must :

  • indicate whether or not processes exist to guarantee the authenticity of published reviews (e.g. checking whether the review really comes from a consumer who has purchased the product);
  • If such processes exist, it must specify how the information is controlled;
  • provide clear information on how the reviews are processed (e.g.: "all reviews, positive or negative, are published"; "sponsored reviews"...).

Otherwise the trader risks 2 years of imprisonment and a 300 000 € fine for "unfair commercial practice" if it:

  • publishes false customer reviews,
  • does not verify that the consumer who published the review has actually used the product,
  • asks a person or company to send false reviews or recommendations ("like" etc.) to promote its products or services.

A European trader who does not direct its activities to France will have to respect at least these rules if those of his country are not stricter.

Who to contact in case of a problem with an online review?

Do you have a doubt about the authenticity of a review? Your review submitted on a merchant site or an online review platform has finally been deleted or has been rejected without reason?