Online reviews are worthless, some would have us believe, because of the level of fake postings.

However, with the right safeguards in place, fake reviews can be contained and dealt with. 

Here's why fake online reviews are becoming an exercise in futility for companies who want to game the system.

If you believe the naysayers, online review communities are a hotbed of corruption and fakery, where offshore contractors are paid to smother review communities with glowing reviews about a company in exchange for the green stuff, and where customers blackmail retailers into giving them huge discounts by threatening them with a negative review.

At a glance, the headlines in the broadsheet and tabloid press would seem to back up these claims, suggesting that it's a problem of epidemic proportions with numerous horror stories playing on the worst fears of concerned consumers.

Here are some prime examples of headlines that have been seen in the media recently:

10 - 15% of all online customer reviews written will be fake by the end of this year, according to a Gartner report 

It all adds up to a pretty damning indictment of the online review scene, but what the naysayers don't say is that online reviews remain vital to both consumers and business because:

  • Online reviews provide an invaluable customer-to-business feedback loop.

  • The percentage of fake reviews remains small compared to genuine ones.

  • Online reviews are set to grow, with consumers turning to online reviews despite the negative press. For instance, according to the 2013 Travel Weekly Consumer Trends Survey, 97% of those who consult travel review sites are swayed by the opinions they find on them

This all means that the industry must tackle the issue of fake online reviews head on, and underlines how important it is that respectable companies sign up to a properly moderated online review community.

A serious player 

However there are people and companies out there that are committed to fighting fake reviews, and this includes investing in and developing software to help users spot fakes.

These companies are developing systems to zero-in on suspicious activities as well as relying on their communities to help identify and investigate reviews, further ensuring their quality and authenticity.

Why do companies fake it?

No matter what safeguards are put in place though, there will still be companies tempted, or desperate enough, to consider hiring fake online review writers.

But there are several reasons why they might want to take a step back and reconsider:

Found out!

If the company is eventually called out for faking its reviews, it can expect the revelation to damage its brand.

In other words, the minimal amount of money spent paying for fake reviews will be dwarfed by the amount of money lost when disgusted consumers walk away from the business.

Too good to be true?

If reviews of a company's services or products are overwhelmingly high then increasingly aware consumers are going to be suspicious.

Because of fake review horror stories in the press, even the least web-savvy customers are wising up to the tricks of the fakery trade.

And even if the company is not officially 'found out', the effect could still be profound on its bottom line as consumers decide that they simply don’t believe that any company can have zero or very few negative reviews.

Oh, and the law...

Companies found to be enlisting the help of fake reviewers could find themselves in legal hot water. The Advertising Standards Authority told the Guardian newspaper that, "the strict Advertising Code prohibits advertisers from falsely claiming or implying they are acting as a consumer” and companies found to be posting fake reviews “could be subject to investigation by Trading Standards or the Office of Fair Trading.”

In a recent case 19 companies were collectively fined $350,000 in New York after being caught paying for fake reviews. Expect similar cases around the world in the near future.

How to spot fake reviews

One way companies and review communities can help themselves is to help their consumers spot potentially fake reviews.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet for spotting them:

1. Be suspicious of reviews written in terrible English. It may indicate that the reviewer is based in a country notorious for outsourcing fake reviews.

You should ensure you choose a neutral, independent, open platform which takes action if you report suspicious reviews. Leading review communities remove suspected fakes pending investigation. 

Warning Bell Rating: 3 out of 5

2. Monitor where your reviews are coming from by only encouraging reviews from verified buyers.

Warning Bell Rating: 4 out of 5 

3. Avoid reviews that simply heap praise on a product without giving any reasons into why it is so exemplary. 

You want real-world information, not hyperbole. (To make sure the reviews you get from your customers are useful, thoroughly consider the questions you ask them and how - a customer review invitation is a powerful tool.)

Warning Bell Rating: 4 out of 5

4. Allow your community to be involved in spotting fakes. Let them be ambassadors, but also brand police. 

Warning Bell Rating: 1 out of 5

Jan Vels Jensen

Published 20 November, 2014 by Jan Vels Jensen

Jan Vels Jensen is Chief Marketing Officer at Trustpilot and a contributor to Econsultancy.

9 more posts from this author

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Comments (4)

Kelly Harrison

Kelly Harrison, Head of Digital at University of Arts London

On Trip Advisor, I always ignore people who have only posted one or two reviews (whether they are bad or good). If they are good, I think they are fake, and if they are really bad I think they are a competitor!

over 3 years ago

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Jack Thornton

It would've also been nice if companies like Trustpilot actually verified the buyers prior to posting negative reviews for all to see and then have the brand deal with the fall-out. You have the responsibility for better due diligence yourself, but then again, it would hurt your business model, no? Keep doing it though, brands aren't going to be paying for your scaremongering tactics and will be posting fake positive reviews to drown the fake negatives instead.

Why? Because with the number of review sites it's impossible to keep paying everyone to be able to just exercise your right as a business to reply to a negative review - whether fake or not.

So before you engage in advising businesses on the ways of managing their reviews online, you should first look at yourself as well as other companies like Feefo who only post verified reviews and who businesses don't mind paying for the service. It's about being fair both to the consumers and the business as a mediator.

I hope better models will put you out of business some day.

over 3 years ago

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Mark Selwyn

You have to laugh at the hotel in Blackpool who fined a guest £100 for leaving a bad Tripadvisor review http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30100973

They've managed to get enough bad publicity to last them a few lifetimes.

over 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and GDPR Geek at Fresh Relevance

One of the worst things you can do is reply to all reviews indiscriminately.

Some sites, such as TripAdvisor, let the brand reply to each review, and quite a number of businesses do this, but rarely allow enough resources and resort to boiler-plate replies instead. So the review page ends up bloated by spam from the brand. This is annoying to wade through and must deter potential customers.

Limiting yourself to occasional replies can be very effective. I still remember an angry, hotel review, claiming a wallet had been stolen, followed by an understated reply which mentioned in passing that the wallet had been found in the safe in their friend's hotel room, where they had clearly left it

over 3 years ago

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