If you shop online, it’s likely that you rely on reviews to help you choose what to buy. But what if the reviews that convinced you were paid for by the sellers of that product and the reviewer actually never tried the product? Or what if you looked past a product that was actually good because it was reviewed badly by bots operated by the product’s competitors? These are some of the issues around reviews on e-commerce sites that, in the best case, reduce the trust in the system, and in the worst case, harm consumers by pushing faulty products.
E-commerce platforms (ranging from Amazon to Swiggy to MakeMyTrip to the Google Play Store) have tried to address these issues by improving the review moderation process over the year, but many of the concerns continue to exist. Now, the Indian government wants to take a shot at it, and it has worked with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), to launch the Indian Standard (IS) 19000:2022 “Online Consumer Reviews — Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication,” to curb fake and deceptive reviews on e-commerce. Will these guidelines be adopted by platforms and will they be effective? Only time will tell. “Given the concerning authorities perform their respective roles in the best manner, the likelihood of curbing fake reviews seems an achievable task than a far-fetched goal,” Suvigya Awasthy, Associate Partner at PSL Advocates and Solicitors, told MediaNama.
“We believe feedback mechanisms such as reviews are essential for consumer interest. We welcome the steps being taken by the Government to create necessary standards,” a Zomato spokesperson told MediaNama. Amazon said that it was still analysing the guidelines. We have also reached out to other e-commerce platforms and will update this post when we get a response.
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Who is covered by these guidelines?
Any platform that publishes consumer reviews: “This standard is applicable to any organization that publishes consumer reviews online, including suppliers/sellers of products and services that collect reviews from their own customers, a third party contracted by the suppliers/sellers or an independent third party. It is recognized that the different processes related to the collection, moderation and publication can at various times be performed by different organizations. This standard is applicable to reviews published online, collected by any methodology,” the guidelines state.
Voluntary at first, could be made mandatory later: “The standard will initially be voluntary for compliance by all e-commerce platforms. BIS will also develop a Conformity Assessment Scheme for the standard to assess compliance,” the government stated at launch.
What do the guidelines propose?
Guiding Principles: Platforms are required to adopt the following guiding principles in all their processes:
- Integrity: Sites must reflect “the opinions of legitimate review authors who have acquired a product or service and have submitted reviews.”
- Accuracy: The process of collecting, moderating and publishing consumer reviews must “as far as reasonably possible are accurate; that is, adequate, current and not misleading.”
- Privacy: Review authors’ personal information must be protected.
- Security: All systems must “have anti-fraud mechanisms in place to protect personal data from internal and external fraud.”
- Transparency: The platform must be “transparent about all methodologies, and ownership, that may impact or influence a consumer’s use of the review site.”
- Accessibility — Reviews must be “easy to find and presented in a clear and simple format so that it can be read and understood by consumers and suppliers/sellers.”
- Responsiveness — Platforms must respond to communications from consumers, sellers, and other interested parties concerning their online reviews and respond without undue delay.
Terms and Conditions: The organisations should develop “a written set of terms and conditions that state the rules and criteria to be complied with for anyone wishing to submit a review.” These T&Cs should be easily accessible and it should be communicated that non-compliance with the T&Cs “may lead to rejection or removal of reviews.” The terms and conditions are required to reflect that the review must be a personal consumer experience and factually correct, to the best of the author’s knowledge. Additionally, the T&Cs must prohibit defamatory language, marketing material, etc.
Communication with sellers:
- Platforms are required to set up communication channels with sellers of the products and services reviewed on their site and share relevant feedback with these sellers from review authors.
- The review administrator is required to provide “a specific clearly communicated contact channel” to allow contact from sellers.
- Review administrators must also “contact suppliers of products and services alerting them to any serious safety issues or potential risks highlighted in consumer reviews.”
- Sellers reviewed on a site must have “the opportunity to register a business online profile so that they can receive alerts when new consumer reviews are published.”
Continual improvement of services: Platforms must “continually update and improve the service” they offer by monitoring and responding to consumer and seller feedback, applying new concepts to their process, improving the efficiency of their processes, encouraging innovation, training staff, etc. They must ensure sufficient resources such as IT systems are available “for process planning, designing, reviewing, identifying, considering and applying new concepts and practices for continual improvement.” This includes regular reviewing of their moderation process and improving the same.
“New initiative, but will definitely work in the near future. The direction is correct, adoption by all commerce marketplaces is must. Rating and review management is a closely guarded functionality for all marketplaces, now aligning all in the same direction will help both the sellers and consumers.” — Dilip Vamanan, co-founder of ONDC app Seller App
How should the review collection process work?
What should reviews contain: Reviews should mandatorily contain the date the review was submitted and a total rating. Additionally, review authors can be allowed to give a description of their experience, time period of experience, photos, etc.
Responsibilities of various participants:
- Review Author must accept T&Cs and submit contact details: Those writing reviews must accept the terms and conditions and provide an email address or phone number to enable review administrators to contact them. Authors must be given the opportunity to or can even remain anonymous if the platform allows it, but contact details must be submitted to the platform.
- Review Administrators must safeguard personal information: Administrates are responsible for ensuring the safety of the personal information collected from review authors. Adequate security measures must be put in place to prevent breaches and the personal information must only be used for the purpose of moderating reviews and not transferred to third parties unless the author has given consent.
“Pertinently, India is still in a very nascent stage with respect to tackling problems of data privacy […] it will take considerable time and joint effort of the stakeholders to implement such rules and regulations in letter and spirit.” — Suvigya Awasthy, Associate Partner, PSL Advocates & Solicitors
Solicited Consumer Reviews
- Invite only those who have purchased: “Review administrators inviting consumers to submit online reviews should send invitations to all those who are known to have purchased the product or service. If the invitations are not sent to all those known to have purchased the product or service, it shall be collected using an objective and demonstrable process that minimizes bias and prejudice.”
- Invitation details: The review invitation should clearly identify who is soliciting the review, details of the product or service for which a review is being sought, how and where the review will be used, and what all information about the author will be published.
Unsolicited Consumer Reviews
- Anyone can review subject to some conditions: Any consumer can leave a review on the site provided they submit their personal information by registering on the site and accepting the terms and conditions.
- Verifying author: The review administrator should have “a process in place to verify that the review author is a real person and confirm that the contact details provided are genuine and correspond to a real person.” This “means fake accounts created just for review writing will go away over time or won’t be able to review,” Ananya Gupta, Associate, Victoriam Legalis, remarked. The identity can be verified by the following methods:
- “Verifying the email address by sending one or more emails and awaiting a response;
- Verifying the review author’s domain name and email address extension in comparison with the online review subject and/or the name of the evaluated product or service;
- Sending an email that asks the review author to confirm their registration by clicking on a link;
- Verification by a programme that protects websites;
- Verification by telephone call or SMS;
- Verification of identification by Single Sign-On (SSO);
- Verification of identification by geolocation or IP address;
- Verification by the review administrator that the review author’s email address is valid prior to publishing a first review; and
- Verification by using a single user per email address; and
- Verification using the captcha system.”
“Ratings and reviews are one of the most important desirability metrics customers validate before making the purchase decision. Fake reviews for authentic products always create problems on conversions. In most cases, reviews are done by unverified users who might have never bought the product. The department of Consumer Affairs move to verify users first and then allow review will definitely help.” — Dilip Vamanan, co-founder of Seller App
Minimising biased and fraudulent reviews:
- No publishing of purchased reviews: The review administrator should not “knowingly publish reviews that have been purchased and/or written by individuals employed for that purpose by the supplier/seller, or by a third party.”
- Reward-based reviews: Review administrators can offer the review author a reward for their review but the reward should “not depend on the content of the review submitted” and the platform should display a “mark” along with the review to make readers aware that a reward was offered. “For travel platforms, it is common for hotels to invite bloggers and influencers for free stays and then get them to write a nice review but going forward, the platforms will have to enable the disclosure of such sponsored reviews so the consumer is aware,” Sachin Taparia, founder of LocalCircles, one of the committee members that formed these guidelines, explained.
Review collection form format: The review administrator can decide the structure of the online collection form to obtain the review, and can provide an opportunity for sellers to comment on the format. “The total rating for a product or service should be given by the review author and not be recalculated or modified in any way by the review administrator.”
How should the review moderation process work?
Moderation will be against preset, published criteria: “The review administrator shall moderate all submitted consumer reviews against a predetermined, published set of criteria to decide whether they are suitable for publication. The process allows review administrators to reject or remove reviews if the review fails to meet the terms and conditions. Moderation can take place before and/or after publication of a consumer review. Moderation may be automatic, manual, or a combination of both.”
Analyzing review content:
- Performing the analysis: The review administrator will have to put in place processes to analyze and confirm the content collected to ensure its compliance with the terms and conditions. The analysis performed should take into consideration whether the review author is verified as a real person, the review author’s behaviour (frequency of writing reviews, history of contributions, location, etc), and the language used in the review. Following the analysis, the review shall be identified as either “not containing problematic content” or “as fraudulent or containing potentially problematic content.”
- Automated moderation: The review administrator should “use dedicated IT programs for analysis” for verifying whether a review is “appropriate, relevant and impartial.”
- Manual moderation: Manual moderation should be performed by competent staff. A review can only be published if it’s gone through automated or manual moderation.
Measures to adopt: Moderation methods should correspond to the volume of reviews that the platform receives and reviews should be done within specified time limits. All those involved in the process and their actions must be identified and traceable. All reviews should receive equal treatment regardless of content.
Staff moderating consumer reviews: The staff involved in the moderation process must have proficiency in the language in which the review was written, contact access to the author, history of the review submission, the ability to pass the moderation to another staff, etc.
Rejection of a review: The review administrator can reject a consumer review, prior to publication, if it is found to be fraudulent and does not meet the terms and conditions for publication.
Editing reviews: The review administrator is not permitted to edit consumer reviews at any time, but it may allow review authors to edit their own reviews. It can allow this before publication in case “the review administrator believes that the review author has unintentionally breached the terms and conditions” or after publication by adding a marker indicating that the review was edited.
How should the review publication process work?
Maintaining the accuracy of the review: To maintain the accuracy of the review, the review should be displayed and published in full with no editing, link to the full review must be present if only an extract is shown, if the review is translated a link to the review in the original language must be shown.
The default sorting criteria: By default, reviews should be sorted from newest to oldest based on the submission date. If any other criteria are being used, then that should be clearly indicated and the option from chronological sorting must be provided as well.
Displaying the review submission and consumer experience date: The review must show the submission date and can show the consumer experience date and purchase date, if available. “If proof of the consumer experience date has been provided by the review author, the review should be marked accordingly. If so, the review administrator should allow the user to filter for proof of the consumer experience date of the reviews.”
Protecting the personal data of authors: The review administrator should ensure that the profile information does not show all the information submitted on registration. “Any personal information should only be accessible to the review administrator and the review author concerned; and
- The review author should have control over the dissemination of their personal information; and
- The default settings should protect the review author’s privacy.”
Overall rating criteria: An overall rating should be derived from individual ratings, but should be “on the basis of principles of mathematical objectivity,” continually updated, accompanied by the total number of reviews, not combined with reviews collected with rewards, etc. Additionally, the overall rating should only take into account reviews submitted within a specified time period.
Ensuring transparency of the publication process: The review administrator should make available “on the review site in legible and accessible form, the review publication process and any aggregation and weighting methods used.”
Publication time: “Reviews, irrespective of whether they are positive or negative, should be published as quickly as reasonably possible to eliminate bias in the overall view of a product or service through late publication.” The following should also be taken into consideration:
- “Reviews should be published within 72 h in case of meeting the laid terms and conditions but no longer than one month after submitting; and
- Publication should not be suspended due to any communication with the supplier/seller of the product or service evaluated.”
Flagging a review containing illicit or inappropriate content: The review administrator should enable users, review authors, and sellers to flag reviews which contain illicit or inappropriate content, reviews that are meant to harm the reputation of the product or service for financial gain, or reviews that contravene the platform’s terms and conditions. Once flagged, the reviews must be manually moderated and a reasoned response must be sent to the person who flagged the review.
Right of sellers to respond to reviews: The review administrator should allow sellers the right to respond to consumer reviews published free of charge so that they can give “their version of events,” thank the review author, or indicate “any changes made to the product or service since the review was written.” The review administrator must ensure “a process is in place to check that the response author is an authorized representative of the supplier/seller.” The responses by the seller should be moderated under the same process and criteria as for consumer reviews. The responses must be published without undue delay.
Loss of the right to submit reviews: “If illicit comments, contrary to the terms and conditions, are detected, the review administrator shall remove the review. Previous reviews from the review author should be examined to determine whether removal is warranted. The review author’s user account profile can also be removed from the site.”
Fraudulent reviews identified post-publication: If a review about a product or service is proven to be fraudulent, the review administrator must remove the review from the site and review its anti-fraud mechanism as well as moderation process to make necessary improvements.
Removal of reviews: Authors can ask for their reviews to be removed and review administrators must honour this. Administrators themselves can also remove a previously approved review if they find that the review did not meet the terms and conditions.
Retention of records: The review administrator is required to “keep a record of all reviews and all documents attached to the reviews that have been removed from the site, as well as the reason for their removal, for a period of at least 180 days from the removal date.”
Publication of reviews from other sites: If a review administrator publishes “reviews from another review site that complies with the requirements of its terms and conditions, it can clearly distinguish the reviews coming from the other review site.”
What are some concerns with these guidelines?
- Are there enough tools available in the market for smaller players: “While large companies may have in-house capabilities to manoeuvre around the standards prescribed under the Guidelines, smaller e-commerce businesses are expected to face challenges,” Rishi Anand, Partner, DSK Legal pointed out. “Small platforms may not be developing all their technology in-house. They may be using outsourced modules and use service providers for payments, logistics and third-party apps for review mechanisms. Are there enough review mechanism software tools in the market that adhere to the BIS standards?”Ashish Aggarwal, vice president and head of public policy at Nasscom, told EconomicTimes.
- Might actually be harder for larger e-commerce platforms: Dilip Vamanan explained that adhering to these guidelines might actually be harder for larger companies: “Ratings and reviews have an indirect relationship with the product ranking. For large e-commerce companies, the implementation might take a bit of time, due to changes in their existing systems.”
- Wide range of obligations imposed on platforms: “While the Guidelines have been framed on the ethos of maintaining quality, integrity, accuracy and transparency, there are a wide range of obligations which have been imposed on online businesses ranging from analyzing review content, appointing review administrator, verifying the identity of a review author, and several other standards which would require organizations to not just make policy level changes but implement changes in its technology infrastructure as well,” Rishi Anand remarked.
- The purchase might be by one person and used by another: “There may be instances where certain goods or services are purchased/utilized in the name of one individual only, however, they are utilized by varied members of the family and the review is published by another individual who was not the initial buyer. Therefore, identifying the veracity and genuineness of such consumers will be a key task,” Suvigya Awasthy noted
- Could increase complaints brought to consumer forums: “One cannot ignore the possibility of violation of these guidelines which shall, in turn, increase the number of pending cases before the Consumer Forums established in India. There also need to be provisions to increase the capacity and feasibility of the Forum to resolve such cases in a speedy and effective manner,” Ananya Gupta noted.
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