France recently introduced a norm for customer reviews and ratings over the internet. To get the NF accreditation on their website, businesses will need to follow guidelines provided by the AFNOR (French association of normalisation) certification company.

Labelled NF Z74-501, the rules for websites wanting to be part of the scheme are:

  • Each person leaving a review must identify themselves and leave 2 methods of contact (email address, phone number or postal address).
  • Each person leaving a review must confirm they have bought a product or service from the reviewee. Reviews without a proof of purchase must be clearly indicated.
  • In case of a global rating by the website, all criteria must be clearly stated.
  • Once published, reviews cannot be modified.
  • Reviews must always appear in chronological order.
  • Websites using the NF accreditation can be audited at any time and may face fines in the region of 200,000€ if they fail to prove that a minimum of 95% of reviews are from real customers.

This is a pretty ambitious regulation that has already raised great interest from many other countries. From a user perspective this sounds like a terrific idea but what is really at stake for websites that rely heavily on customer reviews and ratings?

Why current customer ratings and reviews are not always reliable

While there are quite a few websites like Airbnb, Expedia, Hoteldirect or Argos who will only display reviews from actual customers or buyers, plenty of others like Tripadvisor or Amazon will allow anyone to review anything.

On Tripadvisor all that reviewers need to do is tick a box to certify their review is based on their own experience while Amazon will allow you to simply review and rate anything you want as long as you are logged in. This leaves the door open to fake positive auto-reviews as well as fake negative ones from competitors.

Some overall ratings are also flawed, especially when it comes to restaurants for example. A restaurant can end up with 4 out of 5 overall stars based on service, value and atmosphere even though food itself only had one. Finally, reviews are not necessarily in chronological order which means a customer may be misled if an old positive review has been put forward.

Will this norm really help consumers?

In principle this norm looks like a good thing for consumers as reviews will finally be trustworthy. But there may be a downside though: will consumers now leave reviews as easily as they did before? It will obviously all depend on how complicated the new process is.

So one of the main dangers may be that only unhappy customers will want to go through the trouble of leaving a (bad) review. On the other hand, AFNOR have worked 18 months on this project and it looks like they have carefully thought it through.

The downside to websites with reviews

If a website decides to sign up for the NF norm it means they may have to rebuild their review process which can be costly and time consuming. This may be particularly frustrating for websites who already have a clean process for customer reviews and ratings.

Websites opting in to the NF norm also run the risk of fake reviews still slipping through and rising above the 5% authorised threshold, making them liable to a fine of around 200,000€.

The upside to websites with reviews

Websites opting for the NF norm will be able to keep all old reviews: they will automatically be pushed below the new ones. Consumers will also be more inclined to trust websites with the NF logo and may slowly move away from the ones that are not part of the scheme.

What will Google make of this norm?

Google are always looking to improve the quality of their listings so there is no doubt they will favour NF accredited websites in their search results. A norm like this should also hopefully push them to re-examine their own review process which is probably one of the worst on the internet. All you need is to create a Google Plus account to review a hotel for example. And as everyone knows there are no limits to the number of accounts you can create. No information about your stay at that hotel is being asked, you can just write your review and give your rating straight away. Very poor considering Google’s proclaimed high standards.

In conclusion this is a great idea that will greatly improve customer experience. It should also hopefully push websites with a complacent customer review process to re-examine it and improve its quality and reliability. A few small tweaks will be needed for websites that already have a clean customer review process to become NF compliant.

AFNOR now needs to do their job and actively promote the scheme; once a few big players have signed up to it, it should spread quite rapidly and persuade other countries to implement a similar norm that would globally turn customer reviews and ratings into a reliable source of information for consumers.

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