During the March 2023 episode of “Ready, Set…Respond!” we talked with Courts Boyd of The Transparency Company about the growing concern of fraudulent online reviews and their impact on consumers and businesses. The rise of online reviews has transformed the way consumers and renters make decisions. Many people now rely heavily on online feedback and ratings to determine whether they should buy a product, use a service, and even where to rent an apartment. In fact, according to SatisFacts’ most recent Biennial Online Renter Study, 79% of participants researched their current apartment’s online reviews before contacting the community directly. While online reviews can be a valuable tool, it is important to be aware of the potential for fraud and manipulation. In this article, we will cover:
- The Growth of Fraudulent Online Reviews
- Organizations That Monitor the Trustworthiness of Online Reviews
- Ethical Online Review Cultivation Best Practices
The Growth of Fraudulent Online Reviews
As the use of online reviews has grown, so has the problem of fraudulent reviews. These are reviews that are posted by people who have not actually used the product or service they are reviewing or who have been paid to write a positive review. The practice of posting fake reviews is sometimes called “astroturfing,” and it has become a major issue for consumers, businesses, and regulators alike.
One reason why fraudulent reviews have become so prevalent is that they can be very profitable for businesses. Positive reviews can help a company attract new customers and improve its search engine rankings, which can lead to more website traffic. In some cases, businesses have even hired third-party companies to post fake reviews on their behalf.
The problem is not limited to fake positive reviews, however. Some businesses have also been known to post negative reviews of their competitors in an effort to damage their reputation and gain a competitive advantage. This is known as “review bombing” and can have serious consequences for the targeted business.
The problem has grown so large that Google announced it developed a machine learning algorithm that can identify and remove fake reviews from its platform with greater accuracy. While Google has not released specific figures on the number of fake reviews it has removed, it did state in a recent blog post that it took down 3 million fake business profiles and 90 million policy-violating reviews in 2020.
Regulators have taken notice of the problem and have started to crack down on fake reviews. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidelines for businesses and marketers on how to ensure that online reviews are truthful and not misleading. In addition, some states have passed laws that make it illegal to post fake reviews or engage in other forms of review manipulation, such as:
- Fake reviews: These include reviews and endorsements by people who do not exist or have not used the product or service, or who lie about their experiences.
- Review reuse fraud: Some sellers hijack or repurpose reviews posted about another product or service.
- Paid reviews: Marketers may pay for positive reviews about their products or negative reviews about competitors’ products.
- Insider reviews: These include reviews written by a company’s executives or solicited from its employees that don’t mention their connections to the company.
- Review suppression: Companies might claim that their websites display all reviews submitted by customers when they suppress negative reviews or attempt to suppress reviews on other platforms by threatening the reviewers or use a 3rd party service to hide or filter out negative reviews.
- Fake review websites: This is when a seller sets up a purportedly independent website or organization to review or endorse its own products.
- Buying followers: This involves buying or selling followers, subscribers, views, or other indicators of social media influence.
Organizations That Monitor the Trustworthiness of Online Reviews
As consumers become more aware of online review fraud and its pervasiveness, they are taking steps to protect themselves from fake reviews. One way is by looking for patterns in the reviews – for example if all the positive reviews were posted within a short period of time or if they use similar language, this could be a red flag. Consumers are also looking for reviews from verified accounts or trusted sources, such as independent review sites and organizations that monitor the trustworthiness of online reviews, such as:
- Consumer watchdog organizations: These are independent organizations that test and evaluate products and services, and often include information about online reviews in their evaluations.
- Online review monitoring companies: These companies use specialized software to track and analyze online reviews, looking for patterns or anomalies that may indicate fraud or manipulation. For example, The Transparency Company uses machine learning to identify fake reviews on Google Maps to help consumers find higher-quality businesses.
- Regulatory bodies: In some countries, there are regulatory bodies that oversee online reviews and monitor for fraud or deceptive practices. For example, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidelines for businesses and marketers on how to ensure that online reviews are truthful and not misleading.
- E-commerce platforms: Many e-commerce platforms, such as Yelp and Apartment Ratings, have their own internal departments dedicated to monitoring and verifying online reviews on their platform.
While the specific names of the departments or organizations that monitor online review trustworthiness may vary depending on the industry and location, they all share a common goal of ensuring that consumers have access to accurate and reliable information.
Ethical Online Review Cultivation Best Practices
Companies have a responsibility to ensure that they are cultivating online reviews ethically. Here are some ways that a company can fulfill this responsibility:
- Encourage honest and unbiased reviews: Companies should encourage their customers to leave honest and unbiased reviews of their products or services. This means not offering incentives for positive reviews or punishing customers who leave negative reviews.
- Disclose any relationships: If a company offers incentives or compensation for reviews, it should disclose this information clearly and prominently. This can help customers understand the context of the review and make a more informed decision.
- Monitor for fake reviews: Companies should actively monitor their online activity for signs of fake or fraudulent reviews. This can involve using software tools or manually reviewing them to look for patterns or inconsistencies.
- Respond to reviews appropriately: Companies should respond to reviews in a professional and respectful manner, whether the review is positive or negative. Responding to reviews can also demonstrate to customers that the company is engaged and responsive to their feedback.
- Comply with regulations: Companies should comply with any regulations or guidelines related to online reviews, such as the FTC’s guidelines in the United States. This can help ensure the company is not engaging in deceptive or misleading practices.
Overall, a company’s responsibility to ensure it is cultivating online reviews ethically involves transparency, honesty, and a commitment to providing customers with accurate and reliable information. By following these principles, companies can build trust with their customers and maintain a positive reputation online.