The provision of bogus online reviews is becoming big business. Are the giants of ecommerce and social media doing enough to tackle the problem?
“Last year, after always having had five-star reviews on Google, I suddenly started receiving four one-star reviews almost weekly from someone who’d obviously just set up their profile.”
So says Lisa Johnson, an independent management consultant and coach, who adds that the mystery reviewer was writing “weird things about my work that only someone following me online could know, such as a competitor. Even stranger was that some of the names being used were male – and I wasn’t coaching any men at the time.”
Johnson is far from the only victim of such deception. The manipulation of potential customers by posting fake bad reviews of a rival’s offerings (or fake good reviews of one’s own) is a growing trend. This kind of fraud can have a significant impact on a young business.
Bogus or not, a bad review “still holds weight”, according to Liam Chennells, founder and CEO of Detected, a business-verification platform. For one thing, not every reader will detect the malice behind it, especially if it’s well written enough to seem credible.
“Few people look beneath the surface, so poor online ratings definitely affect how companies are perceived,” he says. “Also, people will naturally gravitate towards the one bad review, rather than the 99 great ones. It’s just how most of us are wired.”
Reviews matter more than ever
The boom in online shopping that’s accompanied the Covid crisis has increased consumers’ reliance on reviews, given that they can’t feel the quality of the goods before buying.
According to software company PowerReviews, shoppers were engaging with reviews 89% more in May 2020, after most countries had imposed lockdowns, than they had been in February.
Because consumers have become so interested in others’ opinions, fraudulent reviews are more effective than ever before, says PowerReviews’ CEO, Mark Dillon. He believes that, “although fakes are fairly obvious to the more experienced ecommerce shopper, newer online consumers may not be as savvy. Some websites will allow anyone to write a product review, whether that person and their purchase were verified or not. This is obviously risky in the current climate.”
According to research published by Which? magazine in March, fake reviews are a booming business. Amazon has banned sellers from paying third parties to publish reviews, yet companies such as Germany’s AMZTigers are openly offering write-ups for sale. There’s also an emerging trend for fraudulent reviews to be blasted out en masse by bots. Fraud-prevention specialist Cheq estimates that these account for about 5% of fakes.
Some unscrupulous vendors think nothing of paying for such services. A recent survey by marketing agency Reboot has found that 10.8% of respondents would consider paying for bogus reviews when selling goods online. The company had previously found, when it polled nearly 1,700 business owners in 2020, that 18.3% would consider trying to sabotage a rival’s online business if they thought they would get away with it.
Do the platforms do enough?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is investigating whether Amazon and Google have broken consumer law in the UK by doing too little to identify and remove bogus reviews. This follows a similar probe into Facebook, Instagram and eBay, which were ordered in 2019 to do more to remove fraudulent write-ups from their sites. All three responded by suspending or banning dozens of sellers.
Amazon has promised to cooperate with the CMA, saying that it devotes significant resources to weeding out fake or paid-for reviews. Since January, it has suspended about 300 Chinese vendors that it suspected of offering financial incentives in exchange for good reviews.
Google has also been dealing with fake business reviews left on its Maps navigation platform. It reports that it has blocked or removed 55 million policy-violating reviews and nearly three million bogus business profiles.
Despite such remedial actions, many people believe that the big players are still failing to respond quickly enough to complaints about fake reviews.
Johnson was certainly unhappy with Google’s response when she alerted it to the malicious campaign against her business.
“When I assured them that the reviews were fake, they refused to do anything about it,” she recalls. “They said they couldn’t tell whether they were real or fake. I was worried about what it would do to my business, as my rating was already down to 4.5 stars.”
Other victims describe weeks of toing and froing before fraudulent reviews were deleted.
Chennells notes that “companies such as TrustPilot have invested in technology to uncover fake reviews, but others still have far to go. There is often a view that it’s no one’s problem and unpreventable. Stronger verification processes, both for individuals and for businesses, would go a long way to solving this.”
How to respond to fake reviews
The process of challenging reviews varies from site to site, but those wishing to complain are generally advised to check both their own reviews and those of their rivals regularly and report them to the platform.
In the case of apparently fake positive reviews about a competitor, it’s also a good idea to contact the owner of that business, as it’s not unusual for a rogue marketing agency to generate these without permission.
It’s even possible to turn bad reviews to your advantage. After Johnson got little change out of Google, she tried a different tack.
“I’d seen James Blunt and Gary Lineker write witty ripostes to Twitter trolls, so I decided to take a leaf out of their book. I responded to every review and posted my replies all over my social media accounts,” she says. “My audience found this so amusing that they started asking me if I’d received any more bad reviews yet, so they could see my responses.”