How Indian Bloggers Dupe Consumers With Their False Product Reviews

Posted by The Sorcerer in Society
April 3, 2017

I wasn’t a fan of tech bloggers when I used to work with Indian tech forums. Most of them were more interested in promoting blogs than adding something useful.

After being a part of such forums for a while, I started reviewing computer components of various companies – motherboards, hard disk drives, solid-state drives, peripherals, and so on.

Soon, I had to decide whether to continue publishing on tech forums or have my own website. In fact, I started one such site for archival purposes.

Why Did I Start My Own Website?

I decided to start my own website seven years ago. I feel incredibly lucky because it picked up. I met a lot of people and learned a lot from them. I got to experience something new, which allowed me to gain certain perspectives to write content.

It became necessary for me to make content which users from all walks and experiences would find easy to understand. This was important because my readers wanted to understand more. Unlike the PC Master Race Community in the US, as long as you had the resources and expertise, contributing from your side was smooth-sailing.

In fact, I stopped considering myself as community contributor, when forum moderators started having problems with me. Working on Hardware BBQ (which is a site for PC tech reviews, previews and recommendations) became my only goal.

After founding Hardware BBQ, many brands started asking for my opinion to improve a product. This allowed me to connect with my readers and companies providing tech solutions. We relied on each other to give and receive the best of the computer products that we dealt with.

For this purpose, end-user and feedback meets and two-way direct communications between buyers and the management in certain brands were encouraged. In this context, it is to be noted that there are some people who hang around only for ‘freebies’. However, this is gradually ignored due to the ‘networking’ in the blogging community.

What Is My Issue With The Blogging Scene In India?

Many brands discourage activities such as end-user and feedback events, because of the ‘close connections’ between the brands and the people, which can potentially lead to a bad reputation.This wouldn’t have mattered if people performed the roles assigned to them and remained objective. Instead, there are some bloggers who create conflicting content, which is usually not spotted by the relevant crowd.

While there are some good people, most Indian bloggers are trashy. This applies to all kinds of bloggers out there.

1. Food Bloggers

For instance, food-blogging was a rare niche, until websites such as Zomato took it up.

I know some food bloggers, personally, who travel a lot and explore what new places have to offer. They go to a restaurant of their own volition, order their own food and pay for it. The restaurant might not even know if one is reviewing the food, until the review is published online. You write only about what you get and it gives a clear perspective for fellow readers. There is no conflict of interest here.

Then, there’s the other type of food-blogging. This is how it works. You, as a restaurant owner (or its PR person), invite many ‘influential’ food bloggers and/or famous Twitter/Instagram personalities. The purpose is simple – you ask these personalities to review the food, beverages, ambience, or talk about an experience – all for the prospective customers – for which they won’t be charged. Generally, it is this ‘special’ review that common people come to know of.

In these events, people who have a large number of followers on social media are usually invited. Please note that this is a ‘special service’ for the ‘bloggers’. Therefore, a review of such a service does not reflect the service given to a paying customer, unless the restaurant maintains a common standard for both services. The reviewers themselves cannot know the differences or similarities between the two kinds of services, unless they have experienced it both as a specially-invited person and as a paying customer.

In fact, many such reviewers share their experiences which are basically hand-crafted by the management (or the PR) of the restaurant. This then gets shared via blogs, social media and even on Zomato. To compound matters, such bloggers usually place the review link below the eulogic review. Many of these reviews are therefore seen with high ratings.

Even if there’s no monetary remuneration, it is assumed that in exchange for food, bloggers will give positive reviews to help gain customers and ensure good business. This is clearly a conflict of interest because many people give good (if not the best) reviews, irrespective of the quality of the food. The conflict of interest deepens when a blogger asks or accepts money in exchange for a review. It is also debatable whether one blogs about the experience based on the food served.

It is no wonder that the food-blogging community in India is in a mess. These practices also undermine the effort put in by those food bloggers, who pay for their meal and then put forth their honest perspectives.

The end result isn’t pretty. A friend of mine went to a fine dining place at the Bandra Reclamation, only to find out that most of the food there was severely under-cooked. As he was eating with six other people, it is highly unlikely that it was just a case of bad luck. He posted a review of the restaurant on Zomato, which had glowing reviews of the place by food bloggers.

Then, my friend found out that experiences and reviews by paying customers did not match those by bloggers, who hadn’t pay for the meal or had got an invite for an exclusive event. Moreover, ₹8000 is too expensive for an uncooked meal.

As a potential customer, you are likely to question the purpose of food reviews, if the food reviewed is different from the what is served to paying customers like yourself. There are very few blogs that strive to build a credible reputation. So, the writers writing these biased reviews are hardly bothered. In these cases, it is the paying customers who are misled, which may lead to a fall in the restaurant’s reputation.

Are we being duped by Indian bloggers?

2. E-Commerce Websites

Similar tactics are used by small companies who have their products listed at e-commerce websites. These companies generally ask reviewers to provide good reviews and then pay them or give away items for free. Fiverr and Facebook groups had a listing for such people. Over the years, Amazon US used the legal route to fight this menace as it affected paying customers.

I would imagine that this is a concern for sites based on crowd-sourcing, such as Zomato. At times, I see some sellers asking for glowing reviews in exchange for free things. The reviewer buys a product, leaves a good review, contacts the seller (who wanted the review) and sends a screenshot to get a refund.

3. Gadget Bloggers

Gadget bloggers are not much different. Most of them have started a trend of writing reviews based on the specifications and using product images.

Here too, there is a conflict of interest. The reviews never disclose if free goods were offered for this service. Consequently, many devices are caught manipulating benchmarks and performance standards. Smart televisions, home management systems and the Internet of Things have all been accused of providing access to spy on its users.

4. PC-Tech Bloggers

Nowadays, I see many PC-tech bloggers coming up. Sadly, during the seven years for which my site has now existed, two similar websites had started and ended tragically. While they employed many people, their reasons for functioning weren’t exactly ideally. As a result, one of these sites created sub-par, and even false, content – all this to receive freebies.

The other site featured exclusive content for specific companies – possibly to get remuneration. They reviewed products by the same brands, and used that to pitch it as a ‘service’ to other brands. Conflict of interest? You bet! This site may have had the potential to continue. However, they lacked the resolve and hence, they had to close shop.

The argument used by such bloggers hardly explains why they choose to betray the trust of their readers. The most common reason cited is that advertisement does not cover expenses. Many of these bloggers rarely use references of purchases made from Amazon or Flipkart.

What Will Be Your Responsibilities If You Choose To Be A Blogger?

It is obvious that being a reviewer or running an online publication is not everybody’s cup of tea. But, entering into a process and disrupting it to make it manipulative is wrong.

Nowadays, we can see the same happening with mainstream news and even self-proclaimed social justice websites. Even if a single perspective based on regional or political difference is shown, many of these sites rely mainly on people’s negativity to get page views. Because of this, facts are not presented merely as facts. While this might be beneficial in short term, it  breeds distrust in people, against various media – TV channels, print or online news.

It is therefore important to be objective, unbiased and not merely rely on click-baits styles of presentation to gain trust among users. Content-makers should research their subjects with humility, even if they may not be the first ones to cover them. It’s more important to be the best than being the first.

These are also problems that companies (especially their management and PR) face. Eventually, the misleading information reflects more poorly on the brands than on unknown bloggers. If companies create distrust among their users, they will inevitably have to spend a lot of time, effort and money to change their policies and regain their reputations. People may have short attention spans, but all they need is one piece of news bad enough to make them stay away from the products concerned.

The best example of this is Freedom 251. In this case, some people managed to obtain review units. However, most of them conveniently ignored the ‘white-marker ink’ covering the brand name of the product. Eventually, few journalists removed the ink, only to see that the product belonged to another company. The rest, as they say, is history!

At the end of the day, before such problems snowball, they should be fixed by bloggers. While I can’t address those who get into this line of work only for the ‘freebies’, I hope the article addresses the concerns of those who would want to make careers in this line of work.

Diversify your ways to earn money – but not at the cost of having it influence your content. Marketing and PR departments have to focus on quality rather than quantity. It’s best if reviewers state a bad product as it is, so that people aren’t duped. Every time a customer buys a bad product, the company’s reputation takes a hit. Negativity spreads more quickly.

As readers and paying consumers, all we can do is question and doubt. If they aren’t answered properly by a particular site, there are other sites that will do the job.

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Image Source : Till Westermayer/Flickr

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