How Businesses Fake Online Reviews

With third-party services being hired to write fraudulent articles, all online reviews should be met with skepticism. Here’s what to look for.

aNewDomain.net — With third-party services being hired to write fraudulent reviews, all commentary found on the Internet should be met with skepticism.

An estimated one-third of all online reviews are fake, says Bing Liu, a data-mining specialist based out of the University of Illinois, Chicago, to The New York Times. The problem is so big, in fact, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had to step in to restore order. Last month the government agency clamped down on 19 companies that “violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fake reviews are basically ad copy disguised as word-of-mouth testimony. They have nothing to do with integrity at all. They may be written by the manufacturer, a third-party service specializing in false testimonials, or customers getting a kickback in exchange for a glowing review.

Here are five ways businesses get away with publishing fake reviews:

1. Lax laws – Even though the Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that financial conflicts of interests should be made clear by the reviewer, they are minimally enforced.

In July, Edmunds, a major online car retailer, filed a lawsuit against Humankind, a Texas-based company that specialized in writing fake reviews. Edmunds hopes that the Texas court will find Humankind engaged in fraud and trademark infringement by violating the terms found on the Edmunds’ website, writes Skift.com

2. Poor computer detection – Yelp employs both user-based and algorithm-based methods to combat fake feedback with mixed results. “Our job is to find and filter out fake reviews,” Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s media rep, told The New York Times“At the same time we let our audience know that this system isn’t perfect. Some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might sneak through. We’re working hard at it. It’s a tough one.”

Cornell University has developed Review Skeptic, an algorithmic approach to ferreting out fake reviews with 90 percent accuracy, according to their website. The service is offered for entertainment purposes only.

3. Poor human detection – Tips for screening fake reviews may include checking the reviewer’s history of past usage and diversity, and avoiding reviews with excessively hyperbolized language, suggests the Harvard Business School’s blog.

But there’s always a fear that real reviews may be filtered out by human error.

“I have over 2,000 patients, and every other week one of them writes a positive review on Yelp and none of them sticks!” says California-based dentist Michael Abaian to The New York Times. “Businesses are at the mercy of Yelp.”

4. Reader ignorance Todd Rutherford, who earned up to $28,000 a month penning “artificially-embellished reviews,” is now a skeptic when it comes to online reviews. “When there are 20 positive and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative. I’m jaded,” he told The New York Times.

Rutherford founded GettingBookReviews.com, a now-defunct web service that penned  over 4,000 reviews-for-pay, before his Google advertising account was suspended, and Amazon started deleting the majority of his reviews.

5. Rigorous review standards stunt user engagementReview sites like Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor may have a vested interest in protecting the integrity of their reviews, but establishing stricter guidelines would inevitably slow user engagement.

Falsified reviews may be more rampant among websites that allow anyone to post (like TripAdvisor), compared to sites like Expedia, which only allows reviews from customers after they’ve purchased the service, a recent empirical study has found.

“I would like to think that, in 2013, most people know that not everything you see on the Internet is true,” Cheryl Harrison, the president of public relations agency Speech Bubble, told Skift.com.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Raquel Cool.

Raquel Cool is a Silicon Valley-based writer who covers various technology topics, ranging from information technology to health and life science. Raquel’s work has been published by the National Post, The Bold Italic, Hyphen Magazine and aNewDomain.net.

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Raquel Cool