In recent years, online review sites have revolutionized word-of-mouth advertising and the value of a customer referral by infinitely expanding access to provide feedback and input on products and services to customers from all corners of the world. This expansion is a great opportunity for businesses – especially the more web savvy ones – to vastly increase their reach and potential consumer base. That is, if they are providing great products and services.
However, as with most new opportunities, new ways to game the system are sure to follow. Enter the world of fake online reviews.
‘Astroturfing’ in the Modern Era
The practice of posting fake reviews about businesses can be extremely detrimental to both the companies engaging in these shady practices and the consumers who are led to purchase a product or service they would have otherwise avoided based on true feedback. Falsified product or service reviews rose to prominence as popular review sites like Yelp, Facebook and Google My Business grew in popularity, opening the door to fake reviews – what has become known as an opportunistic “astroturfing” tactic.
In the world of marketing and advertising, astroturfing refers to “campaigns or messages that appear to be naturally occurring, but are actually being defined by a company,” says Big Commerce. The goal of these campaigns is to influence perception by staging what resembles genuine public interest – whether it be positive or negative – in a company’s products or services when there really is none.
This practice is illegal for businesses and the agencies that represent them to engage in, but it still happens with some regularity today. When viewed in context alongside real reviews, these fakes are often easy to spot.
In 2013, an undercover investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office called “Operation Clean Turf” found 19 companies across the state guilty of writing fake online reviews for either themselves or the companies they represented. The AG’s office reached settlements with the companies and levied fines as a deterrent, but astroturfing campaigns still happen today, and often by businesses that seem otherwise reputable.
So, Who Cares?
Every consumer on the web today should care about fake reviews and the skewed perceptions – both positive and negative – that they can cause for potential customers making a purchasing decision.
According to data compiled by Invesp, 90 percent of surveyed consumers reported checking online reviews before deciding to buy a product of service. In addition, those individuals are likely to spend an average of 31 percent more on a business whose reviews are stellar. With data like this, it’s clear to see why a business would want to have more positive reviews, but the promulgation of these fake reviews poses a serious threat to consumers who use this feedback as a primary tool when deciding how to spend their hard-earned money.
As online reviews have grown more commonplace, they’ve also grown to be more implicitly trustworthy. With fakes also stirred into the mix, however, it has substantial implications on the everyday lives of consumers and companies alike.
About More Than the Money
Sure, the monetary woes that can ensue from making a purchase based on misleading feedback may very well be frustrating, but these false reviews could have even more serious implications.
For example, let’s assume that a company selling low-quality child car seats produces a number of fake reviews touting their product as one with superior safety capabilities when in reality, it is not. A parent then reads those fake reviews and, having no reason to believe the reviews aren’t true, buys that car seat for their baby. Now, hopefully that parent would never find themselves in a situation where the efficacy of their child’s car seat was tested, but what happens if that day does come and they find they in fact have a shoddy piece equipment rather than the highly safe and tested product they trusted on false pretenses? We’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.
Granted, the stakes for every product are not this dire or extreme – a false positive review for a pizzeria means a bad meal or, at worst, food poisoning. But it is not much of a stretch to chart how easily these fake reviews could have a more serious impact on purchases made or lost.
Astroturfing vs. Sabotage
When analyzing fake online reviews, the majority of them fall into one of two categories – businesses astroturfing for their own gain or those working to sabotage their competition. This essentially breaks down most fakes into either positive or negative posting.
Positive Fake Reviews aka Astroturfing
As previously mentioned, astroturfing occurs when a company directly misleads the public by placing glowing, five-star fake online reviews for their products or services. When companies engage in this type of shady practice, the goal is to appear more credible. You may see this as a new business starting out looks to artificially build up its online review presence. In other cases, companies plagued by legitimate negative reviews may purchase a fake review service to artificially bury the critical responses and skew their overall rating back toward positive.
Negative Fake Reviews aka Sabotage
While actively lying to boost your own reputation is not quite what most people in the marketing industry would consider ethical, it could be argued that this method is less harmful and devious than its flip-side – sabotage. Review sabotage occurs when businesses either leave false negative reviews on their competitors or hire a third party to do so on their behalf. Many in the industry view this as the more toxic practice because while astroturfing uses questionable ethics to boost your own profile, review sabotage uses clearly questionable tactics as a way to slander and actively hurt competitors.
Killing Them with Kindness
As is true with all aspects of the internet, the tactics involved in posting fake reviews are constantly changing because the ways to spot, report and combat them are also constantly evolving. In just the short period from 2017 to now, popular review sites have seen myriad methods of falsifying feedback come and go – including some that work to use positive reviews in a more nefarious way.
Rather than going for the fully glowing review, there have been more nuanced approaches to fake reviews. With this campaign, fake user profiles work to leave glowing four-star reviews to businesses that otherwise maintained a five-star rating, as reported by ReviewFraud. These ratings, while not totally devastating to the overall ratings of the targeted businesses, were actually more dubious because they did not flagrantly violate the terms of service for most review sites, making them much more difficult for the business owner to remove.
Five-Star Sabotage Attacks
Around the same time four-star schemes started, another type of attack also using mainly positive messaging was gaining momentum. By this point of 2018, many online consumers were well-practiced in spotting falsified reviews, and the fakers took advantage of this. According to GatherUp, those behind this five-star sabotage scheme would capitalize on audience awareness and target businesses with a high number of real five-star reviews, burying these legitimate responses with a slew of obvious fakes. The goal was to undermine the perceived credibility of the real five-star reviews and make it look like the targeted business was astroturfing.
How to Push Back on Fake Reviews
So, what do you do if you find fake reviews – or are the victim of one of these campaigns? Every review site has its own flagging and oversight protocol, but since more consumers – 63.6 percent as of 2018 according to ReviewTrackers – check Google reviews than any other review site, we’ll outline how to go about removing fake reviews posted to a Google My Business page.
Once you’ve checked through your Google reviews and found some you believe to be fake, the first step is to flag those you have identified as such. Flagging suspected fake reviews will send an alert to Google that those reviews in question need to be evaluated. You will then be entered into a queue and Google will get to your request in the order it was received. Once Google has had a chance to look at the reviews you’ve flagged, its reviewers will decide whether or not they should be removed.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect system and some fake reviews just fall through the cracks because the fakers manipulate the posts to intentionally avoid violating Google’s terms of service. Further complicating matters has been the COVID-19 crisis, which has substantially delayed the turnaround time for complaints, and led Google to even suspend the ability to have new reviews populate for weeks – something that has only recently started to resume, as Search Engine Land reports. However, even in this case you are not without recourse.
Resources like Google Small Business Support provide the opportunity for a more detailed report of the reviews you would like evaluated. In these reports, you can include screenshots and other evidence like a record of other suspect reviews posted by the same profile for other businesses to help strengthen your case.
Another way to get some extra attention from Google My Business is to publicly tweet them or message them via Twitter direct message. The account normally responds within 24-48 hours, at which point you’ll be able to fully explain your case and hopefully get the fake reviews removed.
If the claims made in the false reviews are extremely serious and detrimental, you also have the nuclear option to take legal action and pursue a slander case. However, since allegations of slander are both serious and have rather high standards of proof, legal action should always be reserved for outright lies that imply criminality or otherwise severely damage the reputation of your business, and as such should only ever be used a last resort.
Review Sites (Sort of) Getting Proactive
Although sites that heavily feature reviews have come under some fire for a generally underwhelming response to fake reviews since they began popping up, some sites are finally starting to get out in front of the issue.
Vox reported earlier this year on Amazon’s new one-tap review policy that intends to help give more visibility to verified consumer reviews. While this system doesn’t remove fake reviews entirely, it at least works to suppress them under real ones. The one-tap review system encourages real people who have actually purchased the product they are reviewing to do so by prompting a fast and easy star review. The purchasers are verified by their order histories, making the reviews they do give more accurate.
While this system is leading to reviews that are less descriptive and informative, there is an upside – at least they’re actually real. It will be interesting to see how those who thrive in the fake review industry adapt to these changes as they always seem to. The real question is will Amazon and other review sites be able to keep innovating to keep the fake reviews to a minimum.
We Know Reputation Management
If the underworld of fake reviews, four-star schemes and Google My Business reports seems like a lot to take in at once, that’s because it is. Luckily for you, we handle these types of reputation management issues every day at JFG.
Whether you’d like help figuring out the best way to encourage more positive comments on Google or advice on how to constructively address any negative ones you’re getting on Twitter, we have the expertise to help you stand out as the adult in the room in any online review forum setting.
Bringing with him more than a decade of experience in traditional and online news media, digital marketing and content production experience, Ryan Yaeger is the copywriter and digital content strategist at J. Fitzgerald Group. When not busy wordsmithing at his proverbial word anvil or working on client SEO, you can find him testing new board games or cheering for the Bills or Sabres.