Favorable fake online reviews appear to be increasing. Large numbers of unscrupulous businesses pay people to post positive reviews in order to trick consumers into buying their products and improve their overall ratings and search rankings. The fraudulent reviews can crowd out authentic comments. Honest businesses that play by the rules have trouble competing.
Digital marketing and fraud experts urge major online platforms to make a concerted effort to combat the problem.
Fake Reviews on Amazon
A Washington Post analysis found that more half of Amazon reviews in some categories were suspicious. The Post used ReviewMeta.com to spot red flags of possible phony reviews: repetitive wording, spikes in favorable reviews within a short time, and “sock puppet” reviewers who cut and paste stock language. It found that between 50 and 67 percent reviews of Bluetooth headphones and speakers, diet supplements, and weight-loss pills were questionable.
Businesses openly recruit people on Facebook Groups to post glowing reviews to artificially push their product to the top of Amazon search results. Amazon forbids paying for reviews and periodically suspends large numbers of accounts for the practice. That hasn’t seemed to slow fake reviews.
“The issue with fake or unreliable reviews has not subsided at all but likely is worsening,” Ming Ooi, chief strategy officer for Fakespot, a review auditing service, told the Post. ReviewMeta and Fakespot say the ease of detecting potentially fraudulent reviews makes them wonder why Amazon isn’t more stringent.
Problems with Google Reviews
Fake reviews also proliferate on Google. Some SEO firms include bogus reviews in their services, says Search Engine Land columnist Joy Hawkins. Some offer to “swap” Google reviews. Clients may not know about their unsavory tactics, as SEO firms may only vaguely outline what’s included in their reputation management services. But clients can still be liable.
Both the SEO firms and their clients that post fake reviews take huge legal and reputational risks, Hawkins warns. Publishing fraudulent information may violate state and federal consumer protection and deceptive trade practices laws. They risk lawsuits from competitors, class action suits from aggressive attorneys, and investigations by state attorney general offices and the Federal Trade Commission.
The New York Attorney General’s office fined 19 SEO companies for writing and soliciting fake online reviews. The FCC forced nine car dealerships in California to pay $3.6 million to settle charges of posting phony online reviews and misleading ads on financing. Occasional legal action hasn’t slowed the deluge.
More businesses may begin complaining to ecommerce platforms and even the FTC if they notice spikes of obviously fake reviews for competitors. Companies can use a media monitoring service to identify to brand mentions and respond to negative reviews. But it’s difficult for companies to respond to large numbers of fraudulent positives reviews for competitors.
Hawkins has urged Google to provide businesses a better process to report fake review, improve its algorithm to spot suspicious patterns, and label business listings with a history of fake reviews. Google uses reviews to rank local businesses in local search results, but the company relies largely on volunteer contributors to weed out review spam.
“Unless and until there’s consistent enforcement (e.g., lawsuits, penalties) by major sites against the companies and in the places were fake reviews are solicited, the problem will only continue to intensify,” argues Greg Sterling, a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.
To avoid legal complications or damaging the organization’s reputation, corporate PR executives and agencies in charge of corporate reputation can check online for suspicious reviews and alert departments such as marketing, social media, product management and SEO that creating or supporting fake reviews is unacceptable.
Bottom Line: As fake reviews proliferate, they crowd out legitimate reviews and give dishonest businesses an unfair advantage. The problem will increase unless major digital platforms like Google and Amazon take definitive actions. Solutions are available. What’s needed is willpower.
Michael Kling is manager of public relations, marketing and social media at Glean.info, a media monitoring and measurement service that provides customized media monitoring and PR analytics solutions.