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Tackling a Problem of Fake Online Reviews
(first version published on September 19, 2017)
owadays people rely very much on online reviews before making a decision to buy a product or a service, book a table in a restaurant or a room in a hotel. That’s why they need to know whether they can trust the opinions they find online in order to make informed choices. Fake online reviews are becoming a bigger problem for businesses. Just to show you its scale, according to the research of Harvard Business School the number of possibly fraudulent reviews rose to 20% in 2013. In this article, we will discuss how you can tackle this problem.
Fake consumer reviews are a common problem
On review sites such as TripAdvisor the reviewers do not have to prove that they have actually been to a particular restaurant. Although TripAdvisor does have a review policy, there are too many posts (in total 535 million reviews and opinions as of September, 2017) for the team to moderate every single one. Reviews are screened to comply with posting guidelines such as language content and relevancy to ensure the quality of the reviews. However, the sheer volume of reviews does not allow them to fact check the details of the reviews.
Like on Google, if owners feel their business has been reported on unfairly on TripAdvisor, they can lodge an appeal to their local management center.
Fake reviews may be good and bad depending on their purpose. Some marketing agencies offer restaurants and hotels a service of raising an average star-rating on review sites by giving them 5-star ratings and writing positive reviews. For the record, we don’t recommend the use of such a service, ever. It’s not only unfair, it’s not sustainable as you don’t benefit from real feedback.
A reverse situation is when a person, for example, an unfair competitor, pursues the goal of damaging the reputation of a certain business and writes an extremely negative review. In both cases the reviews are not based on facts.
How do companies fight back against fake reviews?
Since there are so many businesses in different industries that depend on customer reviews, steps had to be taken to prevent such practice. For example, TripAdvisor penalizes properties which have been found fraudulent: such property will get a large red penalty notice on their listing page and may drop significantly in the TripAdvisor popularity index.
Some companies try to fight the problem by introducing verification processes to prove that customers have actually made a purchase from the business before reviewing it. For example, earlier this year Google introduced “Verified Customer Reviews” which are available for businesses with an online store. This feature requires a Merchant Center account where it is possible to set up a process of having customers receive an email survey after they make a purchase. Such measures definitely make customer reviews more trustworthy for the potential buyers.
However, it is not just review sites that are fighting against fraudulent reviews. Submitting or encouraging fraudulent reviews is not only unethical, it’s also illegal in many jurisdictions. There have been quite a few law suits about fake reviews all over the world. Such a law suit may destroy your online reputation, to say nothing of the risk to incur legal costs and hefty fines. To illustrate the point, let us remember a case when a cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift was accused of posting fake consumer reviews and had to pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to the state of New York.
Consumers also often get sued for leaving defamatory reviews on review sites. A recent case happened in the UK when Sarah Gardner left the High Rocks restaurant a one-star review on TripAdvisor and then got a law suit from the restaurant claiming that her comments were illegal and caused the restaurant considerable financial harm.
Although one can understand restaurants which want to protect themselves from unfair reviews, such publicity still may be unfavorable for their online reputation. Customers may be afraid of leaving their honest feedback and may decide not to visit a property which is well-known for suing its customers.
Tips on how to distinguish fake reviews from real ones
As a business, you would like to be able to tell the difference between an honest customer feedback and a fake endorsement. Follow these steps to spot fake reviews:
Pay attention to the language of the review. False reviews tend to use more extreme language, excessively positive or negative. On the contrary, a real review is moderate in its praise, does not use typical marketing jargon and tends to give a lot of details about the product or service.
Check the reviewer. It is possible to see how long a reviewer has been active on a review site and the review history. If a person has recently opened an account with no information about him- or herself and posted only one review, it might be a sign that the review is fake. Some sites, for example, Amazon.com or Google, cross-reference user reviews with their purchase history and label the reviews “Amazon Verified Purchase” or “Verified Customer Review” on Google.
See whether the timing or the number of reviews is suspicious. If there are multiple reviews for a business, especially a new one, in a brief period of time, they can be red-flagged as fake.
Following our guidelines might help you identify fake reviews, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility of missing one. In fact, researchers at Cornwell University found that people are very poor in differentiating real from false reviews.
They developed a computer program which detected the fakes 90% of the time. While none of the big review sites are using Cornell’s software, anyone can try and check out hotel reviews which they find suspicious on the website reviewskeptic.com, built by Cornwell researchers.
So, as a business, what can you do if the review looks suspicious, but you are not sure whether it is fake? Certainly, you need to respond to it. Here is an example:
This review is quite short and very general, it doesn’t present any details, instead just – a lot of unjust criticism. The rating is extreme – only one star out of 5, very typical for fraudulent reviews. As for the reviewer, it’s a relatively new profile with only one review.
We suggest to respond to such a review in a tactful and friendly manner pointing out the fact that the review is not very trustworthy, but still thanking for the feedback. Ask to get in touch to provide more details and don’t use your property’s name in the response. You can find an example of a response below:
How to report a fake online review
You have responded to the possibly fraudulent review, but still would like to inform the review site regarding a violation of their review policy? We have touched upon the topic of what to do if you have got a fake review on Google in one of our previous articles. Let us give here a short summary of what you need to do in such cases on the biggest review sites, such as Google, TripAdvisor, and Yelp.
1. On Google, you can hover over the review in question and click on the Flag icon which appears next to it. You will be taken to the Report a policy violation page. Then enter your company email address and select the violation type. The review will be assessed and removed from your listing. If it is not removed and nobody has got back to you, contact the Google support team from your Google My Business page.
2. On TripAdvisor in your account choose “My Business” from the menu in the upper right-hand corner and choose your property. At the top of the page click on “Reviews” and choose “Report a Review”. There you can fill out a form to flag the review in question. You will need to provide some evidence that demonstrates that the review violates TripAdvisor’s guidelines.
3. On Yelp, you should be logged in on the Yelp for Business Owners website. Locate the suspicious review in the “Reviews” section of your account and flag it. After evaluation, you will receive a notification from the Yelp moderation team.
In this article, we have discussed the problem of fake online reviews and how companies fight against them. Don’t forget that fake reviews are in no one’s interest, especially not any review platform, as they make a living from their credibility, which can only be preserved with real content.
We also have given you some tips on how to identify fake reviews from real ones, how to respond to fake reviews and how to report them. If you have any best practices about how to tackle the fake reviews, share them with us in the comments below.
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About the Author
Natalia is a Co-Founder of re:spondelligent. She is passionate about helping businesses manage and respond to their customer reviews and loves sharing her industry and marketing knowledge to help brands succeed.