The rise of online reviews has placed power in the hands of consumers. According to BrightLocal, 93 percent of consumers read reviews to decide if a business is good or bad, and 85 percent trust them just as much as personal recommendations. Consumers can now rely more on the objective opinions and reviews of their peers rather than glossy advertisements and smooth-talking salespeople.
While consumers have clearly shifted their trust from companies to their peers, corporations have still found deceptive ways to trick consumers with fake reviews. In 2013, New York's attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman conducted an investigation into fraudulent online review practices. After creating a fictitious New York-based yogurt shop, his office discovered the darker side of the review industry. The investigation revealed a sad truth — for a price, companies could simply buy a strong online reputation rather than earn it.
Consumers must remember that although reviews are a powerful resource, they can also be used to manipulate and misdirect unsuspecting researchers. Learning how to identify and ignore deceptive online review practices will help consumers accurately determine which companies truly deserve their trust. This article contains several strategies and tips to help consumers effectively spot the wolves from among the sheep — to distinguish between resourceful reviews and the fake reviews that are intended to deceive them.
The practice of crafting and posting fake reviews has been dubbed astroturfing. Astroturf is used on many football and soccer fields because it looks great and is easier to maintain than normal grass. From a distance, it looks like authentic, growing grass, but upon closer inspection, you can tell that it’s synthetic. These astroturf reviews look and sound like the real thing and can fool anyone without careful examination. The problem is that authenticity is the lifeblood of a review’s value. We want to know the real experiences of real people. Period.
Unfortunately, writing fake reviews is far too easy. Freelance writers can often find jobs on networks such as Craigslist that pay as much as $8 per review. Bots can be programmed to leave automated reviews of companies that can be either glowing or slanderous. This makes identifying the phonies all the more difficult.
How concerned should you be about astroturf reviews? If you take your car to the mechanic for an oil change and it takes a little longer than the online reviews said it would, some mild frustration would be the only consequence. But consider how fake reviews may impact more expensive purchasing decisions. What if a home security company has purchased hundreds of positive but fake reviews to bolster its image? Unaware of its fraudulent review practices, you put your trust in a seemingly reputable company and sign a contract. You’re now legally bound to make monthly payments to this deceptive company for the next three years. You have made a significant financial investment into a bad product wrapped in pretty packaging. Unfortunately, this scenario occurs all too frequently.
The key is to research unbiased review websites that have the consumers' best interests in mind. My company, for example, has a rigorous review moderation process to weed out low-quality or fraudulent reviews. From a pool of 24,022 submitted reviews, there were 9,368 reviews that did not make it through our review validation process. That’s 28 percent of the total reviews submitted. Careful review moderation isn’t a cure-all for catching fake reviews, but it certainly helps.
Here are some steps you can take to spot the fakes:
Look for verified customer reviews
Increasingly, companies that aggregate reviews on their websites are adopting systems requiring reviewers to validate that they are an actual customer of the company they are reviewing (see Amazon’s “Verified Purchase”). This is typically one of the safest ways to know that a customer review is legitimate.
Watch out for bots
Bots are software applications that write automated reviews on review websites. You can often identify bot-written reviews through the following indicators:
- Links within the review text that refer you to a different product or service
- A review username that includes a strange mix of numbers and letters
- Marketing language
- Mentioning the entire name of the product
Trust your instincts
If the review feels phony, there’s a good chance that it is. Is the review overly praiseworthy or angry? Does it contain language that a typical person wouldn’t use? Does it lack detail? Does the tone feel too formal or artificial? If you conscientiously read reviews, you will become even better at sensing when a review is fake. Trust your feelings.
Beware of reviews or review aggregators that publish reviews with any of the above items. This may indicate that the review is unreliable or fraudulent and that the review website does not have a strong review moderation process. In my next article, I’ll share tips on identifying inaccurate or irrelevant reviews as well as identifying incentivized reviews.