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 tarnish 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?
Fake Positive Reviews
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 16% of restaurant reviews (positive and negative) are filtered by Yelp. That could mean Yelp believes that about 16% of reviews are fake or at least untrustworthy.
Fake Negative Reviews
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.
It’s hard to find neutral reviews on the web when so many people write fake reviews for a living. There are 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Online Portals 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.
How can you tell when a review is fake?
Luckily, consumers are getting better at spotting fake reviews. Although it can sometimes be difficult to spot a real review from a fake one, there are some telltale signs that the review you're reading may not be legit.
Reviews that are extremely vague, loaded with first-person pronouns and have more verbs than nouns are less likely to be real. This is because 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. It is also a good idea to check if the reviewer is a verified buyer, and to check the timestamps of reviews.