Fake Reviews: How to Spot the Wolves Among the Sheep [Part 2 of 2]

Jeff Grover

Last Updated: November 6th, 2020

In the first part of this review analysis series, I covered the topic of review validity. The second part of this series focuses on the importance of review usefulness and review ethics. How useful are user reviews, really? And how can you tell if they're generated ethically?

User reviews can be incredibly polarizing and if you're not wary, you may fail to notice that a review's content doesn't match its star rating.

The problem: Inaccurate or irrelevant reviews

Have you ever returned from a brutal encounter with customer service representatives and warned all your loved ones to stay away from the company? Perhaps you went a step further and wrote a negative review online. This process can be a cathartic experience to deal with feelings of dissatisfaction.

Of the 24,022 reviews analyzed by my company, 71 percent were either one-star or five-star reviews (out of five). Most reviews are the result of an emotional response from consumers used to either reward or punish the company.

Consumers rarely leave a review simply out of a desire to inform their peers.

Star ratings can be misleading. The score often represents only one portion of the consumer’s experience, as few sites provide a score for each aspect of the consumer experience. Additionally, the ratings associated with a company or product do not always reflect the sentiment expressed in the review. A one-star rating may praise a company, misleading reviewers who are skimming through.

The content can be equally confusing. For example, maybe it focuses on one aspect of a company or product rather than providing a holistic view of the customer’s actual experience. Or, consumers may use reviews to complain about negative customer service experiences rather than the actual products or services.

Polarized reviews, either glowing endorsements or vengeful warnings, can be very confusing for consumers researching companies. Additionally, scale ratings often reflect only one aspect of a company and provide little insight into actual consumer concerns.

The solution

When you're busy, it's easy to read a few reviews and consider a product researched. It’s even easier to base your decision entirely on the star rating. According to a BrightLocal study, the overall star rating of local businesses was the most important factor to the largest portion of consumers, trumping both sentiment and quantity of reviews.

Additionally, almost 90 percent of consumers read 10 or fewer reviews before making a decision about a company or product; over half of consumers read six or fewer.

To truly understand a clear picture of a company, follow these three tips:

Focus on the content of reviews, not just the star rating.
The convenience of relying primarily on star ratings is tempting. However, you should take the time to look at the distribution of reviews. Are ratings primarily only very high or very low? Overly emotional reviews, though common, may provide little help in the research process. Less emotional, middle ratings often provide a clearer picture and should be given more weight.

Read multiple reviews.
Reading only a few reviews is insufficient to assess a company. To make the best decision, you should find out what multiple customers are saying about the company, ideally from multiple sources.

Find specific customer concerns about products and services.
Identify the specific concerns customers have with a particular company or product and find out how many customers have the same concern. Is the main issue customer service? Is it an isolated incident or a frequent issue? The content of reviews often reveals more than the star ratings do.

The problem: Incentivized reviews

Businesses primarily care about revenue. A Harvard study found that a one-star increase on a Yelp rating led to a surprising 5 percent to 9 percent increase in revenue for independent restaurants. Negative reviews also impact businesses. How companies get reviews and which reviews are published are critical pieces of information for consumers.

Companies incentivize customers to write reviews. You may have a chance to win a special product or even a cash prize if you leave a review for a company, but that opens the door for fake reviews. The same is true for third-party sites — many frequently sell advertising space to generate revenue. Some review sites will even initiate partnerships with companies that they believe are top performers within a given industry just to sell those companies consumer contact information when users visit their pages.

Review sites must be careful of bias. Unethical sites will do whatever it takes to maintain a client relationship, even if it means generating or filtering reviews that aren’t authentic so a company can maintain a high ranking. Some websites will create a feedback gate that sorts positive consumer reviews as “published reviews” and negative ones as “unpublished feedback,” thereby skewing the ranking system.

The solution

Spotting unethical review generation practices can be tricky. However, wise consumers can look out for the following warning signs:

Distrust companies with only perfect scores.
Be wary of websites that only have positive reviews for top-ranked companies. Combat this by looking at reviews from multiple sources. Using a third-party review as a supplemental source of information will provide less biased information.

Learn how companies generate reviews.
Learn more about the review generation process. Does the company offer any type of incentive (money, gift cards, discounts) for reviews? This is unethical and can lead to biased or poorly written reviews. Distrust companies that bribe customers to write reviews.

Look for advertising disclosures on review sites.
Just like the companies they highlight, review sites care about profits. These sites often generate revenue by proving leads to top companies. Many review sites have clearly posted advertising disclosures, revealing that they may be compensated by companies listed on their sites. Be skeptical of review sites that do not clearly post how they receive their revenue. The Federal Trade Commission provides information on endorsement guides here.

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