Fake Customer Reviews: Don't Fall for This Online Marketing Scam

Amazon Fake Customer ReviewsA lot of people look at customer reviews online before they make a purchase. After all, they're like vicarious test-drives: You get the benefit of previous users' experiences in deciding whether a product or service is worth the money or delivers what it advertises.

The pre-purchase advice is great -- if you can trust the source. But often, you can't. In fact, many customer reviews are just another form of marketing controlled by the businesses you're trying to evaluate.

One Out of Three Online Consumer Endorsements Are Fakes

The problem is pervasive: A recent New York Times story highlighted a business called GettingBookReviews.com, which posts positive "consumer reviews" on websites such as Amazon.com (AMZN) -- for a fee. These fake customer reviews say exactly what a book's writer would want them to -- that the book was amazing, of course. Soon after starting his business in 2010, owner Todd Rutherford was raking in the orders and making about $28,000 per month.

That's just one example of marketers muddying the customer-review waters to market products. According to data-mining expert Bing Liu, approximately one-third of online consumer reviews are written by marketers or retailers, not real consumers.

Don't believe it? Consider this: Amazon customers are rating new books higher than renowned classics. How can this be? One self-published writer, Roland Hughes, suggests it's because "[r]eviews for the established classics tend to come from actual readers." Although it could be argued that more people are reading contemporary books than classics.

Ferreting out Phonies

Fake customer reviews aren't unique to Amazon. A few years back a PR agency got into trouble for allegedly breaking the Federal Trade Commission's truth-in-advertising laws by paying employees to post favorable reviews of their customers' games on iTunes without disclosing that doing so was part of their job.

Other companies are trying to crack down on outsiders' attempts to abuse the customer recommendation system. For example, Facebook (FB) recently announced that it was cracking down on "likes" that were "gained by malware, compromised accounts, deceived users, or purchased bulk Likes." TripAdvisor (TRIP) has also warned customers that some of its online reviews may be fraudulent, and is exploring methods for detecting and eliminating fake reviews.

In addition to warning customers, these companies are enlisting the help of data-mining experts to help them create algorithms that can aid them in the discovery and elimination of bogus reviews. These algorithms assist consumers by looking for clues most of us are too busy to find on our own, such as semantic inconsistencies between posts from the same user name, or how frequently a user evaluates products.

Spotting False Praise

Product reviews can have a strong impact on our purchasing decisions because humans have a natural tendency to look to others for signals about how to behave. If someone else praises an item or service, we're more likely to think it's worth our time and money.

Fortunately, there are ways to spot those fakers, and defend ourselves from their influence.

One study, conducted at Cornell University, found that fake reviews focused more on narratives and relied a great deal on superlatives rather than providing concrete descriptions -- probably because fake reviewers rarely have actual experience with the products or services they evaluate. Suspect reviews also used the words "I" and "me" more frequently, perhaps to reinforce their credibility as "real" people.

These study results suggest we should look for reviews that offer concrete descriptions about the product or service to determine whether it fits what we're looking for rather than simply relying on the communication of vague positive or negative impressions.



Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D., is the Principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of TripAdvisor, Facebook, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Facebook, and TripAdvisor, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple.

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joshua_kaplan1

There are some good plugins that sites can use - like Yotpo - that prove it's a real customer who's posting the review because there's a 'verified customer' icon next to their name.

October 30 2013 at 9:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Private Citizen

I disagree with the commentary directing readers to pay more attention to negative reviews. Public Relations companies know that every mom and pop seller can fake their own reviews or buy good reviews now, so they went on the offensive. Bad reviews are now as fake as good reviews. The industry provides negative campaigning against the competition. A good example is the publishing industry attempting to hold back the flood of self published books going toe-to-toe with the big name publishing houses for consumer dollars. Negative down voting and cut and paste negative attacks effectively steer buyers away from indie books with nasty labels made by crowds of "top reviewers" who are paid hourly wages and receive freebie incentives. Interns work there way up in the publishing world by attacking the competition online. Of course they all deny they're doing this since it is illegal and immoral to deceive consumers with false advertising, either positive or negative.

September 29 2012 at 7:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Private Citizen

I disagree with the commentary directing readers to pay more attention to negative reviews. Public Relations companies know that every mom and pop seller can fake their own reviews or buy good reviews now, so they went on the offensive. Bad reviews are now as fake as good reviews. The industry provides negative campaigning against the competition. A good example is the publishing industry attempting to hold back the flood of self published books going toe-to-toe with the big name publishing houses for consumer dollars. Negative down voting and cut and paste negative attacks effectively steer buyers away from indie books with nasty labels made by crowds of "top reviewers" who are paid hourly wages and receive freebie incentives. Interns work there way up in the publishing world by attacking the competition online. Of course they all deny they're doing this since it is illegal and immoral to deceive consumers with false advertising, either positive or negative.

September 29 2012 at 7:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Get real.

The same thing goes for restaurant an hotel reviews, folks. It's called MARKETING. Pay more attention to the negative reviews - those you can be sure are from real customers.

September 20 2012 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ilm9p

If a book isn't worth reading on the toilet it isn't worth buying.

September 20 2012 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Judith

I review a lot of things on Amazon, not just books or DVDs. I am honest when giving my opinions but, I agree, not everyone is. In fact, I read a review last week that someone posted about a book that I had reviewed over six months ago and it was very obvious to me that the reviewer had not only not read the book but had plagiarized part of my review word-for-word! Why would anyone want to do that?

September 20 2012 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michael.griggs

in the beginning, reviews were mostly real. corporate America soon realized the lying potential. we live in a rural setting. shopping is minimal. we stick with the sites that have provided us with what they advertised. a friend of ours has a business. he was approached, actually has been approached many times, by people wanting a fee to falsely rate his business. he has turned them down, but my point is that there is no integrity, much less ant type of truth in advertising laws on the books. wouldn't matter, no one could enforce them. let the buyer beware.

September 20 2012 at 10:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to michael.griggs's comment
stuart100s

Me too, my market is mid sized and we don't pay for positive reviews. We were also told they would slam competitors if we prefered, or do both. I didn't ask prices, I just said no.

September 20 2012 at 7:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
charpist5

There are so many crappy books being written. It is the age of self-publishing. Anyone can "write a book," and publish it on Kindle. The crappiness of these books is in the writing itself. The so-called author often has no real knowledge of how to use the written word. Typos abound. Punctuation errors of all kinds (including too much, not enough, run-on sentences), the use of plural vs. possessive....and the sad fact is, most people read the books and don't even NOTICE these errors. Sometimes these books get absolutely glowing reviews. It is absurd. I suppose they are "paid" reviews. Must be nice for Todd Rutherford...$28,000 a month for....scamming people.

September 20 2012 at 9:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
PsychedelicSpell

I have never purchased online because of a personal review. The only thing I give credence to is the Good Housekeeping Seal. Because they stand behind what they endorse they are invested in it. Reviewers are not.
http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-reviews/history/about-good-housekeeping-seal
Without the seal of approval. You have consumer digest and other venues to check out the product.
http://www.consumersdigest.com/
As for books well if you can go to your local bookstore and you can read it a bit to see if you want to buy it. Most book stores have a reading area set up just for that purpose.

September 20 2012 at 9:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bartman

We recently ate at a new local restaurant that's all the buzz. Well lss, the food was expensive and awful, the service even worse and the portions tiny. I was so furious, I immediately went online to both YELP and another local dining review site to leave a warning. What was so interesting was that the place either had 1 star or 5. Nothing in between. The 1 star reviews were rants and raves like you would expect to see but the 5 stars sounded professionally written using words like superb and superlative. Who talks like that, over 100 5 star reviews, too. And all the 5 star reviews seemed to follow a formula. The parking lot used to be packed all day and night but we're noticed there are less and less cars. It was clear the 5 stars were all fakes.

September 20 2012 at 9:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply