An Australian start-up has set out to take on the world of fake online reviews, bogus accounts and customer comment bots with a new service that focuses on recommendations from friends.
Launched out of Sydney start-up incubator Fishburners on Tuesday and tapping into Facebook's existing social networks, Recomazing lets users share recommendations for local businesses and services with friends to bypass reviews from strangers.
After creating a profile, a user can recommend their favourite hairdresser, web designer, tailor or mortgage broker for their whole friends list to see and save. Those looking for a good business in a particular field can use the platform to seek out recommendations and advice before making a choice.
Recomazing comes at a time when businesses are working harder than ever to bypass conventional advertising spend to tap into the kind of grass roots advocacy that social networks can offer. But as brands start flooding feeds with cat videos and campaigns to pull in 'likes', Recomazing is hoping that real recommendations could be what nets a business more genuine advocates.
According to company founder Marc Cowper, social media users are on the search for the kind of recommendations they get from a conversation with friends rather than a bogus review site.
"The problem is the anonymity of review sites and the implications that has for deceptive consumer conduct," said Cowper. "There is nothing to stop a business from setting up fake accounts and writing positive reviews on themselves or negative reviews on others.
"Fake reviews are big business."
Cowper points to research from Harvard Business School [PDF] saying that at least 20 percent of Yelp reviews are fake, and notes that in a survey of Accommodation Association of Australia members, almost half of the hotel and resort managers surveyed said they'd been threatened by a poor TripAdvisor review from disgruntled customers.
By comparison, Cowper says Recomazing does not allow anonymous profiles, only takes in those who are already connected on social media and gives priority to "the people you trust the most." The other key difference he notes is that real people care about their own reputation after offering a tip, so there is little incentive to post fake reviews.
"We mirror the natural word of mouth conversation that occurs when asking for a business -- we call it the BBQ conversation," he said. "When a person is in a group of trusted friends, they will ask, 'Can anyone recommend a good mortgage broker or designer?' They don't then need to ask about all the negative experiences."
"We have essentially recreated that with social media."
While the platform has a tiered free-and-paid plan structure for businesses, offering tools to track customer referrals, Cowper says this is ultimately so businesses can improve their customer service and focus on the good experiences. Small businesses can still use the service for free and paying customers don't get prioritised.
"Unlike other review sites we don't give preference in search results to businesses that pay for listings," said Cowper. "We simply show users the businesses your friends recommend, regardless of their size or marketing budget."
It's still in the early launch stages, and Recomazing will need a critical mass of users to be truly useful. As with any social network, the platform is only as strong as the number of voices it brings together -- fewer users means fewer people offering their hot tip for a good barber or fewer people hearing you call for dog walker advice.
While it has a large user base and is often a target for complaints about fake reviews, Yelp says its size is also an advantage, with a spokesperson saying the service has "sophisticated automated recommendation software in place" to help detect fake comments.
But Recomazing is hoping its model of seeking recommendations from friends will help it get over the line, selling a message of genuine interactions and honest advice from day one as a way of gaining traction.
Hopefully that means a future fewer people sharing inane cat videos in your feed with the hope of winning a year's free supply of pet food, and no more fake hotel reviews.