eCommerce Insiders

Fake Online Reviews: New Schemes, Decreased Confidence

Online reviews are relied upon heavily by eCommerce shoppers to help make important buying decisions. Marketers know this, and in order to drive sales, they’ve invented all sorts of crafty ways to game a helpful resource with fake reviews.

But at the end of the day, the schemes do nothing but kill a marketer’s credibility. They also kill consumer confidence. Below are examples of how, and why.

The latest Amazon review scheme

It’s not good enough for an Amazon retailer to commission fake reviews from fake customer – Amazon’s already taken steps to eliminate these type of reviews through detection software.

Now, unethical retailers have created a way to boost their profile while trashing their competitors – according to the New York Post, they use list optimization schemes:

Amazon spent the past couple of years cracking down on fake product reviews, but enterprising tricksters are exploiting a fresh loophole on its site. Many of the same vendors who sold fake positive reviews on Amazon for $5 a pop are now selling so called “list optimization” or “list maintenance” services, in which they enlist hundreds of people to vote a product review as helpful so that it moves up to the top of a product’s page.

But the votes can also be used to sabotage a competitor, voting up negative reviews of rival products and tanking demand for goods that previously had been well-received, sources told The Post.

No one wins with fake review schemes

None of this creates a helpful, convenient buying environment for consumers. More frankly, a Mashable reporter summarizes the whole affair with fake reviews and review hacking as being a hot mess:

The internet and the explosion of smartphone ownership have made the opinions of anyone with an internet connection an indispensable part of almost every consumer decision. Whether you’re in the market for a new car, wandering into a coffee shop, or browsing store aisles, there’s a good chance you might weigh the collective wisdom of the crowd.

Unfortunately, online reviews are a mess. They’re still the first stop for consumers looking to buy stuff, but also the scene of an ongoing battle between conflicted platforms, aggressive businesses, and angry customers.

Businesses know this, and they’re still working to game the system…The result is an online review scene rife with conflicts of interest and shady practices.

No one’s winning this twisted game

The  New York Times reported on how flawed the average Yelp reviewing system is, along with the eroding trust of online consumers who rely upon review platforms:

If Botto’s critical notices on Yelp are often written to be outrageous and unbelievable (‘the pizza arrived at the table with a dead rat under the cheese’), they also reflect the confused state of reviewing on the internet. Even as researchers are finding that reviews are less reliable, more people are relying on them. On Yelp alone, the number of reviews now exceeds 100 million.

Reviews tell us what to read next, where to eat dinner and what to order there, where to go on vacation and what doctor to call…But if reviews are ubiquitous, there are also persistent controversies over how many of the reviews on the internet were bought by the subject rather than written as finely reasoned opinions from a neutral party, and whether that distorts all results.

(And previously), Yelp (has) issued 59 new Consumer Alerts, which are notices it puts on a business’s page that it has been caught trying to pay for better reviews.

New York Times also quotes the book Navigating The Stars to offer statistical data to back up bogus review quality:

Navigating by the Stars was published in April in The Journal of Consumer Research. After analyzing 344,157 Amazon ratings of 1,272 products in 120 product categories, the researchers found “a substantial disconnect” between the objective quality information that online reviews actually convey and the extent to which consumers trust them. In other words, the consumer saw a number — 4.6 stars out of 5 — and took it much more seriously than it merited.

Yelp Wants To Protect Its Legitimacy

The last thing that the big review sites like Yelp desire is to lose their reputation for legitimacy. If consumers can’t rely upon sites such as Yelp for honest opinions, then in the end, Yelp loses opportunities for advertising revenue.

To put a stop to this, Yelp started taking aggressive steps a few years ago, up to an including filing law suits against businesses and digital firms that were caught in pay-for-play schemes. Specifically, when businesses were caught paying employees to post fake reviews, or when digital agencies that exist for posting fake reviews were caught, they could expect to face the court system through lawsuit.

For example, Yahoo Small Business reported:

Julian McMillan, who owns McMillan Law Group in San Diego, was served with the lawsuit last week. The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco last month, claims firm employees “pretend to be clients and review their own employer on Yelp.” The lawsuit names employees who have provided positive reviews on the McMillan Law Group Yelp page…

First of all, as much as you would like to have positive reviews on your site, stay away from any fake review services or posting fake reviews of your own. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize the legitimacy and reputation of your business by trying to look just a little bit better. This will also keep you out of harms way when it comes to Yelp suing their users for any fraudulent activity.

Terri Scott

Terri is a content marketing storyteller and strategist. She teaches marketing and entrepreneurship through stories for marketers of all stripes. Her specialty is creating narrative and she writes essays and memoir in her spare time.

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