The issue of fake reviews on online platforms has been a growing concern for consumers and regulators alike. Last month, US travel company Tripadvisor revealed that it had detected just over 1.3 million fake reviews on its websites, with 72% of these being caught before they went live on the platform. Similarly, UK consumer watchdog Which? published research which found groups offering fake reviews on Amazon, Google, and Trustpilot continue to thrive on Facebook. The Guardian confirmed this, finding 34 Facebook pages and 17 groups offering free products in return for positive feedback on Amazon, Trustpilot, and Google.
In 2019, the European Commission, together with national consumer protection authorities, carried out a fake-review screening exercise on a range of online shops, marketplaces, booking websites, search engines, and comparison service sites. The results of this exercise were concerning, with two-thirds of the sites triggering doubts about the reliability of their reviews. In 144 out of the 223 websites checked, authorities could not confirm that these traders were doing enough to ensure that reviews were authentic.
The fake review trade appears to be highly lucrative, with hundreds of links offering all kinds of inducements to log five-star reviews on shopping and comparison sites. EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders has emphasized the need for online businesses to provide consumers with clear and visible information on the reliability of such reviews, stating that “We will ensure EU law is respected.” In response to the screening exercise, consumer authorities contacted the traders involved and instructed them to rectify their websites and, if necessary, initiate enforcement actions. The commission has also pledged to continue working with consumer authorities on this issue and support them in their enforcement actions.
Companies like Tripadvisor and Trustpilot are also working hard to keep their sites clear of fake product and service endorsements. Tripadvisor reports that only 4.4% of their review submissions were determined to be fake or fraudulent, with three-quarters of these being caught before they hit the site. The company takes a range of actions against offending businesses, including content bans, ranking penalties, and, for the most severe cases, red badges. Trustpilot has also taken legal action against businesses that have bought and submitted fake reviews on its platform.
The big question for consumers is how to tell the real from the fake. Which? suggests looking at the comments about the product and asking questions such as: Is the reviewer being over the top about the product? Is the review too long or too short? Does it include specifics about the product? Does it repeat similar information and phrases? Watch out for suspicious language, such as reviews that read like an infomercial, are written all in capitals, have odd formatting or no punctuation. Huge numbers of five-star reviews are also a sign that something is not right. Always check the dates, as a lot of reviews posted at the same time might indicate a big drive on Facebook groups or other platforms to drum up feedback.
It is also worth checking the reviewer’s other reviews. If they have reviewed lots of products, it is likely their praise has been bought. Similarly, if they have given everything they have ever bought five stars, they are probably not reliable. Three- or four-star reviews are worth paying attention to, as they are more likely to be honest than those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Look out for patterns, such as a seller getting a bad review and then a flurry of positive reviews, indicating an attempt to bury the bad one and bring their average score back up.
However, it is not unheard of for competitors to write scathing, one-star reviews on a rival product to drag their average scores down. Fake reviewers have ways of manipulating reviews so they appear more helpful and propel them to the top of the default list where they are most likely to be seen. Therefore, it is a good idea to change the sort order from ‘top reviews’ to ‘most recent’ to get a more reliable read of the most recent reviewer experiences.
Consumers should be particularly careful when it comes to unfamiliar products and services. It is also worth noting that reviews are just one aspect of the decision-making process, and consumers should consider other factors such as price, brand reputation, and customer service. By being vigilant and doing their research, consumers can make more informed decisions and avoid falling victim to fake reviews.