The Problem with Fake Ratings and Reviews

February 18, 2014

fake reviews

According to a recent study by Georgios Zervas, a professor at Boston University’s School of Management, 16 percent of the reviews of businesses on Yelp are fake, either positive ones commissioned by the particular business to boost its ratings or negative ones to depress its ratings placed by a competitor. This illustrates a problem of bogus ratings and reviews that has become well known on sites that rate businesses and products such as TripAdvisor, Angie’s List, and Amazon.com.

Many rating sites and even online retail stores such as Amazon rely on what is essentially crowd posted ratings to give shoppers a good idea of the quality of the product and business. However these results can be skewed, to the detriment of businesses that play by the rules, by the unscrupulous who try to goose their own ratings and degrade those of their competitors.

The New York state attorney general recently conducted an investigation that resulted in 19 firms agreeing to stop paying for bogus online reviews while they faced fines of $350,000. The Federal Trade Commission regards these kinds of reviews as deceptive advertising if the relationship between the reviewer and the business being reviewed is not disclosed.

In the meantime, ratings sites such as Yelp are trying to police their ratings, weeding out those they believe are bogus reviews. Yelp has filtering software that algorithmically filters many reviews, especially with new car dealerships. A recent study we did of 321 Jaguar and Land Rover dealerships showed over 50% of reviews in the filtered category. Yelp has since changed “Filtered” to “not recommended” but the results are the same, they are not shown with the recommended reviews and are not calculated into the star rating. Buying fake reviews have gotten so commonplace apparently, that Yelp has resulted to running sting operations on sites like craigslist as unsuspecting, would be review buyers attempt to get positive reviews to stick on their Yelp page. The result if a business is caught in the sting; a public shaming complete with a special “Consumer Alert” message that a visitor must click through before getting to their Yelp business’ page.

The problem with bogus reviews is likely not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, it behooves any business to rely on legitimate verified reviews from actual customers, and to be on the lookout for bogus negative reviews planted by a competitor, employee or others. In the latter case, contacting the particular rating web site and bringing the problem to its attention is vital.