From choosing the best hotels and restaurants in town to consulting the right doctors, most people rely on online reviews. In fact, we rely on online reviews so much that a single bad review can completely ruin the online reputation of a company. A 2018 study suggests that 91% of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations—as long as the reviews are authentic. But about 20% of reviews are fake. So can you really trust online reviews?
4 most common types of review manipulation:
- Companies use fake reviews to damage rivals
- Consumers use reviews to get discounts
- Many companies have in-house reviewers
- Internet trolls defame brands for fun
How many reviews are fake?
Have you ever read a glowing review about a product online and wondered if it sounded too good to be true? Your skepticism may be valid.
Recent research suggests that reviews found on social networks and review sites like Yelp may not be as reliable as people think. According to this study, roughly 20% of restaurant reviews (positive and negative) are fake.
Fake reviews have created problems for both honest businesses and consumers, and it's easy to see why. Each additional one-star Yelp rating causes an increase in business revenue as high as 9 percent. Since reviews directly impact revenue, this creates motivation for businesses to improve their Yelp page. Some businesses take extreme and/or dishonest measures to do so.
Here are a few honest ways businesses work to improve their online reviews (more on the dishonest ways later):
- Link to your Yelp page on your website, email signature, or social media
- Remind people that you’re on Yelp when they enter your store with some signage (think "people love us on Yelp" window clings)
- Share positive reviews on social media
- Quickly respond to reviews (both positive and negative)
Are fake negative reviews a problem?
Not all fake reviews are positive. In another study, researchers found that businesses often leave fake negative reviews to undermine their competitors and usurp potential customers. This is a common practice for restaurants and hotels who attempt to make their properties look better by ruining the star-ratings of their competitors. For example, let's say there is a major chain hotel surrounded by boutique hotels. The smaller hotels may write negative reviews about the chain in order to entice travelers to consider their properties instead.
Buying and selling online reviews is big business
It’s hard to find neutral reviews on the web when so many people write fake reviews for a living. There are entire companies based in India, the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere that have large teams of fake reviewers working tirelessly day and night to make bad businesses look good and vice versa. As you can imagine, Yelp is a prime target. With so many fake reviews out there, people often question if Yelp reviews are even reliable.
A simple Google search will give you dozens of services that can be hired to create fake reviews on any site or social network you want. And since many people trust online reviews, brands regularly hire such services to increase their positive reviews and polish their reputations for prospective customers.
There are many ways that brands do this, and the list continues to grow as new techniques are developed. We've rounded up the four most common types of review manipulation.
Companies use fake reviews to damage rivals
As mentioned above in the boutique hotel scenario, a scarier aspect of fake reviews is that many brands hire companies to start propaganda campaigns against their rivals and damage their rivals’ online reputations. There are even firms that specialize in negative PR.
Every year thousands of small and medium-sized businesses suffer because of fake negative reviews on sites like Amazon, Yelp, and Facebook. For example, a UK-based chef was recently fired for leaving fake reviews on TripAdvisor in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of competing restaurants.
Consumers use reviews to get discounts
Businesses know that one bad review can turn away hundreds of potential customers. This is why businesses make every effort to please dissatisfied customers who leave negative reviews.
Unfortunately, many consumers take unfair advantage of this and use negative reviews as a blackmailing tool to get special deals and discounts.
Such reviews are misleading and tend to blow small things out of proportion, yet brands often have to give in to this “blackmail” to avoid greater damage to their reputations.
Many companies have in-house reviewers
It’s a poorly kept secret that many companies have in-house teams hired specifically to write favorable online reviews and counter rivals with negative reviews. Online, these employees appear to be different users from different locations. Many brands manage anonymous social media accounts, and even websites, to publish positive news about themselves and to damage their competitors with negative propaganda. These types of accounts can be easily purchased from places like BlackHatWorld for a little as one dollar per profile.
Internet trolls defame brands for fun
Trolling is a phenomenon that emerged with the growth of social media. Internet trolls are people who intentionally start quarrels and controversy by posting inflammatory comments on social media posts.
Most of the time, their objective is to get the attention of other people following the post. But trolling has also become a major problem for brands. Internet trolls routinely post fake reviews and negative comments about brands for fun.
Even some of the biggest brands in the world, like Target, have been victims of trolling on social media. But they have the budget to counter such attacks with positive content. Most small to medium-sized business, however, don’t have that luxury.
How to tell when a review is fake?
Luckily, consumers are getting better at spotting fake reviews. Although it can sometimes be difficult to tell when a review is real or fake, there are some telltale signs that the review you are reading may not be legit.
Here are a few of the most common signs:
- Extreme star ratings (1 or 5)
- Vague language, loaded with first-person pronouns and more verbs than nouns. Remember that it's easier to write a vague story-based review than an accurate description of a product you've never used, or a place you've never visited.
- Timestamps and locations that don't make sense (this is a good indicator for restaurants or other local businesses)
- Users that use nicknames instead of their real names
Online review sites are struggling to stop fake reviews
Perhaps the scariest thing about all this is that even the biggest social media platforms and review sites have failed to effectively counter fake reviews.
A few years ago, Amazon sued more than 1,000 fake reviewers selling their services on Fiverr. But that didn’t stop people from finding other ways to manipulate reviews.
Review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have taken several measures to counter fake reviews and trolls including automatic detection systems and manual moderation teams. Some sites only allow verified users to leave reviews, and this has worked well for review platforms that can easily verify real users.
One of the ways in which Yelp combats fake reviews is with its "not recommended" section. Yelp uses automated software to filter out reviews that it believes are fake, biased, or otherwise unhelpful.
Even with the efforts of review sites and your own detective skills, it can still be tough to spot fake reviews. This harms not only the consumer, but the business as well if it is suffering from an onslaught of fake negative reviews. If you're currently dealing with this problem, it's still possible to turn your reputation around. If you need help with that, feel free to contact us today.