Four ‘cruel’ reviews cost Aussie millions
Melbourne woman Gee McCracken was at the top of her game running a string of successful businesses when she "lost everything" at the hands of "a few nasty people".
In 2009, Ms McCracken founded a small eyelash extension business, Just Lashes, which evolved into five franchises.
In 2014 she sold Just Lashes to focus on her new weight loss company, BodyOlogy, which used microcurrent technology.
By 2017, it had expanded into four Melbourne franchises and a master-franchise in Queensland, with the group raking in more than $1.5 million in revenue in less than ten months.
But in October that year, everything started to fall apart.
"It all happened very quickly and we were flying very, very high and doing well," she told news.com.au.
"Then, in October 2017 - I remember it as if it happened five minutes ago - I got an email saying we had received a one-star review. My stomach just sunk, because getting a one-star review is really serious.
"Maybe a lot of businesses out there don't care, but that's not me - it was my business I had built and my reputation, and it was everything to me."
Ms McCracken said the initial "nasty and badly written" review was written by an unhappy customer who was accidentally double-booked for a treatment, which meant she missed out on an appointment.
A second "cruel" one-star review soon followed, and then two more a week later. Ms McCracken said she had been able to prove that two were written by genuine customers, but that two were "fake".
Within weeks of the reviews being published online, the number of customer calls to BodyOlogy had plummeted from more than 30 per day to just a couple.
New clients stopped coming in, which seriously affected revenue, and the business soon had to cut down staff to reduce costs.
"I remember in December 2017 thinking, 'This is serious, I don't know how to pull us out of this.' It was the beginning of the end," Ms McCracken said.
"It was one of the worst times of my life. I tried to revamp the website, but nothing worked.
"I can't tell you how much it was affecting me emotionally and physically due to the stress levels. If I was on my own it would be a different story but I had franchisees sinking with me. It was absolutely horrific."
An emotional Ms McCracken said she contacted Google 17 times asking for help regarding the two fake reviews, but only received automated responses. Her pleas to online review sites also fell on deaf ears, and by early 2018, it was clear the business was on its last legs.
"We didn't recover," Ms McCracken said.
BodyOlogy ceased trading on June 30, 2018 and entered voluntary liquidation in September.
"It sounds almost like a made-up story, that a national franchise flying so high could be brought down by a couple of reviews, but we were," she said.
"My whole life was that business and for it to crumble at the hands of a few nasty people who didn't give a damn was just not right."
Ms McCracken said she "lost everything" and has recorded a personal loss of millions of dollars over the past year as a result of the collapse of her business - which was on a growth trajectory - after selling her home and investing into it.
"It was really difficult and it fractured me financially," she said.
"I was in a very comfortable position and to lose all that was very, very difficult.
"I'm lucky I'm still here after what I've gone through and the emotional toll it took … at times it was all too much."
But Ms McCracken has channelled her heartbreak into a new business venture aimed at combating fake negative reviews and helping small business owners.
She has created a new online review site, The BOM, for Australian products and services which is designed to create a fairer and more constructive place for feedback and recommendations online.
The BOM gives customers cash equivalent rewards for leaving honest and constructive reviews, employs a team of moderators who check every review to ensure they meet guidelines and aims to "help bring some integrity to the internet" by tackling malicious, unfair or fake reviews designed to bring down Aussie businesses.
According to Queensland University of Technology retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer, negative online reviews could be catastrophic for small businesses.
"Anecdotally, consumers are often engaging in social media sites to look for recommendations of hotels, restaurants or businesses, and we know word of mouth or e-word of mouth has a higher standing when it comes to consumers choosing a brand - they are more likely to listen or accept as true reviews and testimonials online over what a brand or business might advertise," he said.
"The risk of course is predatory behaviour where unscrupulous consumers or maybe competing businesses may falsely construct reviews or testimonials designed to damage a retail brand or a business.
"There's no way of checking for authenticity or legitimacy of review."