How to spot fake online product reviews: The dark side of e-commerce

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We know online product reviews are crucial to products being sold – but is customer trust in reviews being eroded by nefarious sellers gaming product review systems with fake product reviews?

Unfortunately, a great deal of signs point to “yes.”

There are many occasions where we rely on reviews to help us distinguish between products or services – especially when there are a multitude of choices.

I recently bought a digital thermometer on Amazon, where there was a plethora of hundreds of devices, so I – like many of you reading this have likely done – relied on the reviews to help me make the decision. However, upon purchasing it, each time it was used, I’d get completely random results – making clear that the device wasn’t nearly as reliable as the reviews had led me to believe.

A few days later, I received the typical email from Amazon, asking me to review the product, so I posted an accurate and honest negative review. I often review my Amazon purchases, as I know that I tend to rely on them myself when buying from the website. Like many customers, I tend to review the items I really like and those that I really don’t.

What happened next was quite an eye opener into the world of Amazon product reviews.

Truth hurts: We’d love your feedback. Wait. Not *that* kind of feedback.

Over the following few weeks after posting my online product review, experience, and feedback of the item, many emails from different addresses began arriving in my inbox, all offering money if I’d remove the negative review. They even provided a link with instructions on how to do it.

Despite me replying and stating that I was unwilling to change my honest product review, the emails continued. It only stopped once I reported it to Amazon, who, to their credit, took it quite seriously.

This got me thinking about the process of online reviews:
  1. If this has happened to me, how many other people are tempted by the offer of money, and go ahead and remove a negative online product review?
  2. What about the positive reviews – do Amazon sellers pay people to post them?
  3. Do sellers pay people to leave negative product reviews for the products of their competitors?
  4. Can we even really trust reviews at all?

Countless studies have shown that user-generated reviews can have a big impact on your conversion rates, although, admittedly, many of these studies have been published by companies that sell review management services.

It completely stands to reason that user-generated reviews can be very powerful tools in influencing a buying decision; especially with something technical or expensive like a new TV or a holiday vacation.

I’d expect that almost everyone reading this post has viewed Amazon, Yelp, or TripAdvisor reviews at some point, and that these have influenced the buying decisions that were made.

With a vast array of marketplaces flooded with different product options – most at a similar price points – reviews can be the key differentiator when it comes to clicking “buy.” But is the race to win on reviews damaging the trust customers have in them, and will this, ultimately, dilute the importance and the impact of online product reviews, and their conversion rates?

Gaming the system: Bulk-buying online product reviews is a massive risk for brands

A recent investigation and report by Which? detailed exactly how easy it is for Amazon sellers to buy verified reviews in bulk. Just a simple Google search finds a number of companies offering a review generation service. They use techniques to get around the Amazon guidelines and to ensure that the reviews appear to be genuine.

Most of the time the process involves providing your product to reviewers for free or at a discounted rate but, for an additional fee, some services will guarantee that your product is returned once the review is submitted. As well as product reviews on marketplaces like Amazon or Walmart, sellers can also purchase seller feedback, and even votes to push positive reviews up.

The prices for these services start from around $10 per review, but can be much higher for certain categories of products – this further highlights both how valuable genuine-looking reviews can be, and the dangers for brands if companies can pay money for bad reviews.

Digging into the dark world of paid online product reviews

During their study, the Which? researchers posed as an Amazon seller to speak to AMZTigers, a company based in Germany, which claims to have over 60,000 reviewers worldwide to gain an understanding of what their service offers. As well as offering to generate product reviews, the AMZTigers account manager claimed that they can even help a seller gain ‘Amazon Choice’ status within 2 weeks.

This is a BIG consideration, as the Amazon Choice label is another crucial differentiator for marketplace sellers, and it can possibly give the impression that the product is endorsed by Amazon. While Amazon won’t say exactly how an item is awarded ‘Amazon Choice’ status, it has said that the item has to be highly rated, well-priced, and available to ship immediately.

The fact that sellers are willing to pay large sums of money and give away free products in exchange for positive reviews is a good indication of how powerful positive reviews are.

If this weren’t the case, companies like AMZTigers would not exist.

Amazon’s review policies

Amazon has strict policies aimed at protecting the integrity of reviews. They claim to analyse over 10 million reviews every week and to regularly ban, suspend, or even take legal action against those that violate their policies.

In my own case, as soon as I reported the seller to Amazon, the emails offering to pay me to remove the negative review immediately stopped, so I’m assuming that Amazon did something about it – although the product is still for sale on Amazon from the same seller.

But is Amazon doing enough?
Are they protecting the buyers they rely upon?

Companies offering these services can be easily found on search engines so it is hardly a clandestine underground service. I suspect many of us have previously read reviews for an Amazon product that are clearly for a different product or just don’t appear real to know that Amazon’s policies are not preventing this issue from happening. While the problem is not entirely limited to Amazon, it is one of the biggest marketplaces in the world so deserves a lot of scrutiny.

How to spot fake online product reviews 

So, how can users trust reviews they see on websites like Amazon, eBay, or Walmart? We know that reviews can have a high impact on a user’s purchase decision, so when a merchant has gamed the system and generated a lot of suspect reviews, the customer is the one that loses out.

The key to weeding out suspect reviews is learning how to recognise reviews that are likely to be fake. Red flags include:

  1. Products that have a lot of very recent positive reviews
  2. Products that have a large number of reviews with photos attached (how many people really do that?)
  3. Overly detailed reviews for products that really don’t deserve or need such a write up
  4. Reviews stating that the reviewer was given the product free of charge
  5. Reviews that are clearly for a different but related product; this is known as review merging

Another option for finding fake product reviews is to use online tools like Fakespot or ReviewMeta. These are both very powerful and actionable tools using multiple algorithms to analyse fake online product reviews.

In doing so, both provide users with an overall score for the accuracy and reliability of the product reviews, as well as providing more detailed insights into the patterns that they’ve discovered.

They can even provide an adjusted review rating, which often remove approximately 1 star from the rating. The tools look for patterns which indicate suspect reviews without the user having to trawl through thousands of other online reviews.

Some of these tools even provide a browser plugin that overlay the review score on the Amazon product listing and display pages, which can be extremely useful. While these tools will not be foolproof, the score and insights they provide should be taken into consideration when making a purchase decision.

An image of Fakespot Chrome plugin altering the online product review on Amazon, so that they user can better understand what reviews are real and what ones are fake.
The Fakespot Chrome plugin altering the review score from 4.5 to 3.5 on Amazon.

 

An image of detailed analysis provided by Fakespot for online product reviews of a product on Amazon.
Detailed analysis provided by Fakespot for reviews of a product on Amazon.

The very fact that these tools exist illustrates that there’s a widespread issue with sellers gaming online product reviews.

The future of online reviews

So will mistrust in reviews start to erode their value and will customers stop using them as part of their purchase decisions? Without action, I think the answer is simple and resounding: Yes.

While this is unlikely to be a sudden change, the slow erosion in trust will continue to lessen the impact that reviews have on conversion rates and their value.

Trust is such an important aspect in customer experience. It takes a long time to gain and a short time to lose.

Perversely, as the value of gaming the system reduces, sellers will be less likely to pay money to obtain fake positive reviews, and therefore they may become more trustworthy again – but this would be hard to predict.

Ultimately, the solution is for the marketplace platforms to do much more to prevent this happening. I don’t believe that my experience regarding my recent online review was unique. The fact that companies like AMZTigers, Fakespot, and ReviewMeta even exist and openly advertise their services tells us that a massive problem lurks below.

As trust in marketplace reviews diminishes, this will have a knock-on impact on consumer trust in the marketplace itself. If I can’t trust reviews on Amazon, I am less likely to buy from them – so resolving this issue isn’t just the right thing to do, but it will also have a long-term commercial impact, as trust is ultimately at the heart of any product or brand thriving.

Marketplaces should dedicate more resources to preventing the gaming of their review programmes, as well as making the consequences for breaching the terms more severe. In my case, the seller clearly and brazenly breached the terms, but is still selling the same product on the platform.

Only when the cost and consequences of gaming the system outweigh the benefits will sellers stop.

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Branwell Moffat

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