I love to shop online. And I am savvy, too. I always research the product in question, although admittedly, some of my “research” includes checking out the product reviews. I don’t even consider products that get below four stars, and I generally stop to sift through the reviews for even four-star products to see why they didn’t receive a perfect score. I even look at the distribution of stars -- how many one-, two- and three-star reviews any four-star product averaged. I thought I was being discerning, but I was actually getting scammed—at least some of the time.
Recently, as I was clicking through reviews of an Amazon product, I started noticing some anomalies. In particular, one reviewer posted how her husband loved to use the product in question, but when I clicked on the “see all my reviews” button, I noticed one of her other reviews mentioned her wife. And apparently she (or he) never met a product s/he didn’t like, as all the reviews were glowingly positive. What the heck?
Fake reviewing has been rampant for years. A Wall Street Journal article chronicled the confession of a fake Amazon reviewer back in 2009 and a shakeup in Amazon’s Canadian site outed many review counterfeiters as early as 2004.
Posting fake reviews, or “astroturfing,” as it is called, is big business and it is getting bigger. What is the impetus for these dishonest postings? As an inquiring mind that wanted to know, I took a closer look.
Why Do People Write Fake Reviews?
One good answer is supply and demand. The Internet has been an incubator for many rags-to-riches businesses and the trend toward false review production has Internet magnate hopefuls in a frenzy. One of the most recent cases of fraudulent reviews involves an Oklahoma man who began selling book reviews for $99 each, playing off the advent of easy, inexpensive e-book self-publishing that has new authors vying for readership dollars. In no time, he was netting $28,000 a month and was the proud owner of a flourishing online business, GettingBookReviews.com. Alas, a disgruntled customer who felt she waited too long for her review blasted him on some consumer sites and hastened his end. Once Google caught on to him, they shut down his advertising account and Amazon took down most of his reviews.
In addition to garnering positive publicity for a product or service, stealthy Internet businesses also pay to slam the competition by having reviewers write negative posts, comments and reviews on a competitor’s site.
Some reviews are meant to be funny commentary on a product, such as the numerous reviews for the Bic for Her pens that garnered several tongue-in-cheek responses, such as this one-star review:
I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day’s tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks.
Obviously, this is not meant to be an accurate review of the product, and anyone who reads it would know as much. But what if you didn’t click through to the reviews? The pens received a 3 star rating after 188 (mostly fake) posters gave it one star. Using my own online shopping criteria (four stars or better to even look at it), these false reviews would cause me to bypass this product.
Others write fake reviews to bolster a political or religious philosophy, and still others to promote their own (or slam competitor’s) products. As I noted earlier, in 2004 the New York Times covered a temporary hiccup in Canada’s Amazon site whereby thousands of anonymous posters’ identities were uncovered. This glitch “outed” John Rechy, author of “The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens” who gave his book a five star review under cover of “a reader from Chicago.” This illustrates a fault of many rating systems: that anyone can anonymously post a review. Authors or business owners can corral family members, friends and co-workers to post glowing missives while ex-spouses, ex-girlfriends, a disgruntled family member or a competitor can post a vituperative smack-down with little fear of retribution.
Who Writes Them?
With another nod to the system of supply and demand, an entire industry has sprung up around the manipulation of online reviews. I listened to a radio advertisement for half a year on my way to work that promoted a service to “fix” spurious negative Internet reviews by repairing a business’s online reputation. I never gave a thought to how that fix was going to occur until my eyes were opened to the whole fake review situation. In writing this article, I did a little research into these “reputation managers.” On the whole, they focus on small business owners and offer to “fix” bad reviews by hiding them under a deluge of positive ones. These positive reviews can come as blog posts, product reviews and social media sites. Some shady companies even offer to bury negative posts from sites like ComplaintsBoard.com and RipoffReport.com and keep negative Better Business Bureau ratings from turning up in casual searches.
Besides employees of “reputation management” companies, there are other individuals, such as freelance writers, who often write fake reviews. Many online freelance writing mills regularly solicit contractors to write reviews. Just for fun, I plugged in “write reviews” into one of the more popular freelance writing job search engines. Although the search turned up several seemingly legitimate review opportunities such as one that covered the cost of the e-book to be reviewed plus an additional amount for the written review, there were plenty of offers like this:
URGENT: Excellent English Writers needed for writing Product Reviews
We need Writers who can write Excellent Product/Business Reviews in English. Reviews will be 200 to 400 Characters each and will require a Total of 10 Minutes Maximum per Review to Write.
Please Bid your Price for each Set of 100 Reviews
It doesn’t seem possible to buy, use and review a product in ten minutes, does it?
I also checked into Fiverr, the website that allows people to offer just about any service imaginable for $5 and for employers to post $5 jobs. I plugged in the words “product reviews” and pulled up a slew of people willing to write product reviews, including the following:
You will receive a brand new, original, custom, product review testimonial that praises promotes your product/service. This review testimonial will explode your sales; compel your readers to click through and BUY more, more often. Ideal for website landing pages, sales letters, ads, advertisements and banners. Our professional copywriters will give your products and services credibility and help you increase your sales.
One posting I found on Freelancer.com asks outright for someone to write and post positive reviews about their company. In the job description, they add that they are willing to “...send examples of comments our customers have sent us to use and refer to as well.” Another listing on the same site advertises for a Product Review Writer and notes that the tone of the review should be “...that of a satisfied customer or satisfied user.” Nice.
Catching Up with Fake Reviewers
In 2009, then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a settlement with the plastic surgery franchise Lifestyle Lift over the publishing of false consumer reviews. The company paid a $300,000 fine in this first-ever case regarding fake online reviewing. It seems that besides directing employees to spend slow business days writing positive reviews online, the company also created entire websites dedicated to fake satisfied customers. Over the years, false review cases that have received press have mounted although many are settled without financial retribution.
To deal with the rising numbers of deceptive reviews online, the FTC revised its truth-in-advertising guidelines—the first revision since the 1980s. It has determined that posting fake reviews is illegal under the truth in advertising guidelines and affirmed their position that any relationship (personal or business) to the seller must be disclosed by a reviewer.
Luckily for the consumer, both Microsoft and Google are getting wise to online fakery and are cognizant of the upward trend in false reviews that is currently undermining the credibility of ratings. In particular, they are pursuing research that will help uncover the patterns that fake reviewers follow. Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois is currently working with Microsoft and Google personnel to develop software that will offer detection. Mr. Liu states:
“To detect fake reviews, researchers and companies have built detection models using linguistic features (or signals) from the review text content, and meta-data features such as the star rating, user ID of the reviewer, the time when the review was posted, the host IP address, MAC address of the reviewer's computer, the geo-location of the reviewer, etc...”.
Mr. Liu estimates that almost one-third of Internet reviews are falsified and that number is bound to increase as Internet usage and dependence grows.
Google is also sponsoring the work of professor Yejin Choi of the State University of New York-Stony Brook, who is developing a program that can expose deceptive reviews with 72 percent accuracy. Choi was instrumental in developing the highly touted Cornell University algorithm that distinguished false from real reviews about 90 percent of the time, and is using that research as a basis for her program.
How to Spot Fake Reviews on your Own
So what’s an Internet shopper to do? Without savvy detection programming or fancy algorithms, how can the average online consumer protect himself from fraudulent practices?
First, use your instincts. If a review is too over-the-top or reads like a commercial--it probably is one. Lists of product features are a sure giveaway, as is copious praise. Even the best of products is flawed in some way. Next, look at the date of the review. If, for example, a new book gleans a barrage of reviews within a day of its debut, buyer beware! You can also take a close look at the names of reviewers. Are they all similar, such as fleefly456, fleefly983 and fleefly1042? This may be a red flag, so check out the other reviews they have written. If you find similar language in all of them, you are probably looking at someone who is cranking them out for profit.
Finally, be cautious of five stars. This one resonates with me, since I typically shop only amongst the four- and five-star items online. If a product gets nothing but five stars from hundreds of people, it is likely that you are looking at a case of fakery.
Of course, just knowing that fake reviews and websites exist is the first step in protecting yourself from being defrauded. With Internet competition on the rise, “reputation management” is becoming serious business. Unless more companies like Google and Amazon self-regulate, we are likely to see things get worse before they get better. The FTC’s keen interest in online practices is a hopeful sign, but there needs to be many more cases brought to light before the risks of writing fraudulent reviews outweigh the benefits.