Is it Ethical to Edit Online Customer Reviews?

Marketers Can Leverage Knowledge of Online Behavior

In a discussion on WNYC regarding the economic impact of restaurant reviews, Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon claimed there is research to support the counterintuitive notion that the most important aspects of online customer reviews on Yelp.com and other community opinion websites have less to do with whether the reviewer pans or praises the restaurant, and more to do with how well the review is written – in terms of its sentence structure, grammar and spelling. In other words, people are more likely to try a new restaurant that has well-written customer commentaries, regardless of the reviewers’ opinions.

Let’s assume this consumer behavior – driven by form rather than substance – is based on the likelihood that review readers conclude that if the restaurant’s online reviews are well written, that the restaurant’s clientele are educated, well-heeled, with discriminating taste and likely to eat at only the best restaurants. So regardless of any online reviewer’s advice, positive or negative, the restaurant is likely to be a “safe bet” in terms of food, service and ambiance.

More importantly, let’s assume this “Snob Effect” on online customer reviews has implications in other businesses, where socio-economics and personal status are factors in the selection of a product or service, and where online customer reviews for those businesses are readily available. For example, those product categories might include automobiles and computers & electronics; service categories might include hotels, resorts and health & beauty spas.

So here’s the ethical question posed to marketers:

Knowing that editorial quality of online reviews has a beneficial impact on sales, and if online consumer reviews are housed on your website, is it unethical to “clean up” those reviews by correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax errors…if online reviewers are notified in advance that their comments are subject to this treatment?

Before you rush to condemn the proposal, consider this: traditional media sources (newspapers, magazines, TV and radio) have applied this editorial practice for decades. Whether it’s a Letter-to-the-Editor, an OpEd opinion piece or a bylined article, outsiders wishing to express an opinion are notified that “Submissions may be edited for length, style and editorial quality.”  And most old media sources take full advantage of that disclaimer.

So why should online opinion – expressed in customer reviews – not be subject to the same type of editorial scrutiny? And why should marketers be prevented from taking full advantage of the Snob Effect on consumer behavior?

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