Can You Trust Online Reviews?
It was going to be your great weekend getaway; stay in a nice hotel and have a romantic dinner with your sweetie. You checked recommendations on the Internet before making your choices. But the restaurant that got the rave reviews served up a plate of inedible swill with a side order of food poisoning. And, the “cozy boutique hotel with the fantastic staff” was right next to the railroad tracks and sent you home with bed bugs in your luggage. What went wrong?
The Fake Review Industry
Some unscrupulous businesses game the system by organizing fake reviews.
In February 2012, Brad Tuttle wrote for Time Magazine that “Online reviews are so important that businesses have been known to plant reviews by employees, pay strangers who have never been customers to write five-star reviews, and even sabotage their competitors by the posting of harsh, negative reviews.”
Driving customers to a store, hotel, restaurant, or whatever through the Internet has given rise to a whole new industry called reputation management. Some of its practitioners are ethical; a lot are not.
At a website called fiverr.com people offer to write glowing reports on whatever a business is selling for five bucks. Freelancer.com offers a similar service where people, probably desperate for a writing gig, are happy to churn out bright, shiny testimonials for anything from old folk’s homes to barber shops.
SearchManipulator is software that its developer promises any negative comment “will not just be suppressed, it will be off of Google, Yahoo, and Bing completely, never to be found again. We know our industry is shady and you may be skeptical, so you only pay once we are successful.” That’s kind of a damning admission.
And Guaranteed Removals promises “We will permanently remove content affecting your reputation, guaranteed.”
Cornell University’s Jeff Hancock studies online language and behaviour. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation “I think it’s really amazing how easy it is to purchase deception now on the Internet. You can get fake likes, you can get fake comments, fake reviews, fake everything.”
The Freebie to Induce Good Coverage
“No charge. We’d just like you to write an objective review. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.”
One way to encourage a favourable report is to provide the reviewer with a free item. Who is going to trash a restaurant when their Chateaubriand and bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges has been comped? Actually, a stellar judgement could probably be had for the price of a complimentary appetizer.
A company called VIP Deals was selling black leather cases for Kindle e-readers. It was also offering to rebate the cost of the product if people wrote reviews of it on Amazon, and spelled this out in a letter. Well, what do you know? As The New York Times reported “310 out of 335 … were five stars and nearly all the rest were four stars.”
Once tipped off to the scam by the newspaper, Amazon took down the VIP Deals product page. But, while it was getting lustrous ratings for its e-reader case VIP Deals was massively outselling its competitors. Don’t think other retailers didn’t notice that.
Amazon has since cracked down on the “incentivized reviews.” This has had the effect of driving the trade underground. Chat rooms and Facebook pages are places where people can find offers of free products in exchange for positive reviews.
Protecting Online Review Honesty
Companies that run review sites have a vested interest in removing false endorsements.
Obviously, the integrity of a website’s reviews is important to its continued existence. According to Time’s Brad Tuttle, “Yelp actually has a reputation for aggressively filtering out all sorts of suspicious reviews.” It uses sophisticated algorithms to purge the phony recommendations among the more than 155 million that had been submitted by spring 2018 since its launch in 2004. The site gets 145 million unique visitors a month so its reach is huge.
In May 2011, David Segal wrote about how Yelp had deleted 22 reviews of a Sherman Oaks, California dental clinic as bogus. Digging further, Segal found the dentists had hired a company to improve its public reputation. As part of its remit Softline Solutions posted this breathless five-star comment on Yelp: “I was in need of teeth whitening and my friend referred me to Southland Dental … Pain or no pain, it was very much worth it. I can’t stop staring at my bright smile in the mirror.”
According to the BBC, “Yelp … says a quarter of the reviews it receives could be fake, as businesses increasingly attempt to skew consumers’ opinions.”
But, it seems you can’t even trust the integrity of some of the review sites, let alone the reviews that appear on them. The Telegraph in the U.K. reported on an investigation that found that “some review websites were hiding negative reviews because they had commercial arrangements with the companies facing criticism.”
Fighting Back for Consumers
Authorities are starting to crack down on review scammers.
In March 2011, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clamped down on Legacy Learning Systems of Nashville, Tennessee. The FTC said the “company selling a popular series of guitar-lesson DVDs will pay $250,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceptively advertised its products through online affiliate marketers who falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers.”
In September 2013, a New York state attorney general’s office sting netted 19 companies that were monkeying around with the review system. Agence France-Press noted that “officials created a fake yogurt shop in Brooklyn and sought help in marketing from so-called ‘search engine optimization’ firms that work to boost a company’s online presence.”
They found businesses that were happy to supply the needed Web puffery by hiring “writers” from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Eastern Europe. A typical company offering the service advertised online: “Hello … We need someone to post 1-2 reviews daily on sites like: Yelp, Google reviews, Citysearch, and any other similar sites. We will supply the text/review … We are offering $1.00 for every post.”
The 19 outfits scooped up in the undercover operation agreed to pay fines totalling $350,000 to settle the charges.
Between the start of 2015 and October 2016, Amazon filed lawsuits against at 1,000 people; some were sellers of fake reviews and some were buyers. But, it’s a real cat and mouse game. To smoke out the tricksters some sites have resorted to going undercover. They set up a fake business and go looking for the rascals offering sham reviews; they are not hard to find.
How to Spot the Frauds
Consumerist has a list of things to look for in a review that make it suspicious.
The online consumer advocacy group asked readers for tips on how to “ferret out the shills, sockpuppets, and charlatans when cruising online reviews of products and services.”
Overly effusive praise and the use of “marketing speak” are giveaways.
The use of the same or similar wording in multiple reports usually signals bogus opinions.
Reviewers who repeat the name and model of a product frequently are probably trying to trick a search engine into a higher ranking.
“They give a discount code or tell you where to go to buy the product.”
There are many more ways to spot the phonies.
And, an academic paper published in May 2013 (Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail) identifies linguistic clues to trickery: “deceptive messages tend to be longer. They are also more likely to contain details unrelated to the product (‘I also remember when everything was made in America’) and these details often mention the reviewer’s family (‘My dad used to take me when we were young to the original store down the hill’). Other indicators of deception include the use of shorter words and multiple exclamation points.”
Gut reaction is often a good guide. After four or more decades on this planet people develop a nose for horsefeathers. If you haven’t reached that state of maturity yet, seek out someone who has.
The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority estimates that online reviews have an influence on buying decisions valued at £23 billion a year in that country alone.
According to the BBC (April 2018) “Some U.S. analysts estimate as many as half of the reviews for certain products posted on international websites such as Amazon are potentially unreliable.”
- “9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews.” Brad Tuttle, Time Magazine, February 3, 2012.
- “Fake Online Reviews: 4 Ways Companies Can Deceive you.” Megan Griffith-Greene, CBC News, November 6, 2014.
- “A Rave, a Pan, or Just a Fake?” David Segal, New York Times, May 21, 2011.
- “For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews.” David Streitfield, New York Times, January 26, 2012.
- VIP Deals letter.
- “Yelp Admits a Quarter of Submitted Reviews Could Be Fake.” BBC News, September 27, 2013.
- “Shoppers ‘Duped’ By Millions of Fake Online Reviews.” Dan Hyde, The Telegraph, June 19, 2015.
- “Firm to Pay FTC $250,000 to Settle Charges That It Used Misleading Online ‘Consumer’ and ‘Independent’ Reviews.” Federal Trade Commission, March 15, 2011.
- “Fake Online Reviews Get Reality Check.” Agence France-Press, September 29, 2013.
- “30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews.” Ben Popken, Consumerist, April 14, 2010.
- “Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail.” Eric Anderson (Northwestern University),
- Duncan Simester (MIT), May 2013.