[Testimonials] Why leaving abusive reviews on the Internet is not trivial?

Idyllic setting, delicious breakfast, beautiful room and charming hosts. We will be back. “Poor quality, excessive price, and minimal welcome, as if we were bothering.” Accompanied by zero to five stars, reviews have invaded the Web for the past decade and have now become commonplace. Some consumers resemble “serial note givers”. With his phone’s GPS constantly on, Sam has gotten into the habit of responding to notifications sent by Google, which tracks his movements and encourages him to evaluate the places he visits. “Rating a restaurant is subjective. For a supermarket, I remain factual.

I like to share my experience and warn people if something is not right, justifies this 32-year-old young father. I’m not trying to complain, but to explain.” Often, internet users add photos to support their comments.

Attentive reader of reviews, Sandrine leaves a rating only in the case of an exceptional experience, whether negative or positive. “Those who make an effort on the service in a restaurant, for example, deserve to be known. Conversely, when I am very disappointed, I don’t hesitate to write a bad review so that the owner corrects their mistakes,” says this 39-year-old Parisian who tries to remain “factual”.

Facing an unpleasant situation, other consumers express their anger and frustration, sometimes with a lot of exclamation points and adjectives. “I write a negative review if something unpleasant has altered my stay – a hygiene problem, hot water, heating… – and I find it important to tell others,” specifies Apolline, a regular user of Airbnb, a website for renting accommodations between individuals. And in the case of unsatisfactory accommodations, if the owner turns out to be unpleasant or absent, the young woman feels less remorse about posting a “mean review”.

This sharing of experiences is part of a legal framework. Whether they appear directly on the Google search engine – favored by 80% of review readers – on online shopping sites, specialized platforms like Tripadvisor or social networks, the comments are subject to the respect of the law for a digital Republic, which came into force in 2018. This law requires online sellers and review platforms to display the date of publication of the review and the consumer’s experience, to specify the ranking criteria (at least in chronological order), to indicate if a consideration has been paid, to specify if the reviews are checked, and finally to mention the reasons for refusal of publication. These measures are circumvented by dishonest actors (see inset at the end of the article) or by internet users who lose sight of the fact that expressing oneself online is never trivial.

Professionals today are well aware of the weight of these ratings on their activity. According to a survey by Ifop conducted in June 2023 for Guest Suite (a company that assists 10,000 French professionals in managing customer reviews), “92% of French people admit to scrutinizing online reviews before selecting a company for a purchase or a service”.

And if Guest Suite has collected 20 million comments in ten years, 86% of which are positive, the negative ones leave a lasting mark on the minds of entrepreneurs, whether they are hoteliers or caregivers. “The negative reviews affect me. We discuss with colleagues to manage the emotions they provoke. We also discuss whether to react and how to respond without compromising patient confidentiality,” says Pauline Neveu, a self-employed midwife since 2016. “Behind the negative reviews, I find patients who did not understand what happened to them and others who disagree with my diagnosis,” observes the practitioner, dismayed to see even medical aspects being evaluated.

An exercise that remains subjective

Assigning a rating is a subjective exercise and those who receive it are sometimes taken aback. In light of glowing comments about the quality of the stay, Elisa Valinejad, who runs a guesthouse in Charente, is always surprised to see scores of 7/10 or 8/10: “It’s cultural, a question of education, people don’t give 10/10 even if they are happy.”

To avoid wasting energy, Maëlyss Vultaggio, chef at Cedrat x Mama Kyuna, a bistronomic restaurant in Marseille, has decided to stay away from Google ratings. When she takes a look and comes across a negative review, she reads all those left by the same author. “Often, I see that it’s not the restaurant that’s the problem, but the consumer who seems bitter. The internet is convenient for these types of people: they don’t have anyone in front of them to respond,” remarks the chef, lamenting that these customers hide behind a screen to criticize her cooking rather than expressing themselves at the time of payment.

If the computer or phone seems to offer an ivory tower to fans of rating distribution, it is not. “On the Internet, we can’t allow everything. Even under a pseudonym, we can track down an individual thanks to the IP address of their device,” emphasizes Olivier Gayraud. This legal expert for the consumer association CLCV (Consumption, housing and living environment) points out that there is a limit not to be crossed. “For example, it is illegal to write: ‘I was not delivered, it’s a scam, he’s a thief’.” When a comment violates the law, the targeted company has the right to make it disappear without risking being accused of deceptive commercial practices.

To leave a rating, Olivier Gayraud insists on the importance of remaining factual. “It is prohibited to give an opinion on something you have not tested, or to leave a non-factual comment that makes serious accusations, which may constitute a criminal offense, such as defamation,” explains the specialist. So beware of making hasty judgments. Taking the time to write about an experience from a distance will provide more reliable and honest information to others. Always keep in mind, as Olivier Gayraud summarizes, that “an opinion should not aim to settle scores”.

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