Can Despondent Publishers Prepare to Battle Fake Reviews in 2022?

Online product reviews are essentially electronic word-of-mouth recommendations, and they greatly influence consumers’ purchase decisions. More than 80 percent of American consumers reference them before purchasing a product. But increasingly, the phenomenon of fake reviews is taking over the online publishing and marketing industries.

The trend is being driven by paid-for reviews and technology that enables the creation of fake reviews that either enhance an offering’s attractiveness or degrade a competitor’s offering. In what’s become a classic example of fake reviewing, Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened received 1,500 reviews within 24 hours of being released on Amazon. The reviews were close to evenly split between one and five-star reviews (45 percent to 50 percent respectively). Within 48 hours, Amazon had deleted 900 it deemed fake.

The Impact of Fake Reviews for Publishers

For publishers, creating a truthful marketplace is essential for winning the trust of consumers and advertisers. Authentic feedback on products and services assists other customers in making their purchasing decisions. It also assists providers in improving their offerings. Unfortunately, when fake reviews can’t be distinguished from genuine ones, nobody is helped.

Even when the content of reviews isn’t actually read by either prospective customers or the provider, fake reviews can result in unfair competition. That’s because marketplace and search engine algorithms use reviews to influence a product’s online ranking either positively or negatively. As a result, unethical firms can effectively weaponize reviews to flood the market with fake reviews that lower the visibility of their competitors.

Publishers utilizing such easily manipulated tools without taking precautions to guard against fake reviews could be held accountable for their effects. And they’re not insignificant. A 2011 study calculated that a one-star decrease in a company’s Yelp rating on average resulted in a 5 to 9 percent decrease in revenue. Hence, ensuring the quality of reviews appearing on their platforms has become a significant concern for publishers, brands, and retailers.

How to Identify or Avoid Fake Reviews

Identifying fake reviews is an imperfect science and can be time-consuming if performed manually. Human beings tend to assess the trustworthiness of an online review on factors such as content, writing style, the inclusion of images, length, detail, and the extremity of the review.

Software can be coded to incorporate such heuristic rules to identify potentially false reviews based on patterns. But as soon as the rules become obvious, review writing software can factor them in and potentially avoid them.

Creating multiple marketplaces is one strategy for providing greater opportunities for genuine and comparative reviews. Connecting reviews to purchase transactions can also significantly reduce fake reviews.

However, this latter approach has resulted in “brushing” — where random addresses are used to create accounts which are used to purchase the provider’s product. The address’s residents become unwitting recipients, whether of the books themselves or of low-value items which may be shipped in their stead, while the accounts created using their details are used to create fake reviews.

What Should Be Done with Fake Reviews?

While it might sound counterintuitive, a recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Washington indicates that fake reviews should be left visible. The research shows 85 percent of consumers want a choice regarding whether or not to factor in fake reviews in their purchasing decisions. They prefer to see fake reviews displayed alongside genuine reviews rather than having them removed.

In addition, 80 percent of respondents report having more trust in platforms that display but mark potential fake reviews. This is because they believe calling out fake reviews makes businesses less likely to rig the system.

At the time of the research, Google deleted fake reviews, Amazon.com censored them, and Yelp published them, marking them as potentially fake. The study also cites industry and media reports indicating that fake reviews make up between 15 and 30 percent of all reviews posted.

The FTC and Fake Reviews

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suspects fake reviews are widespread on social media and takes the matter very seriously. It recently advised retailers, advertisers, agencies, and brands that the practice will not be tolerated. Further, it warned that it is empowered to impose fines up to $43,792 per violation, which include:

- False third-party endorsements

- Not faithfully representing whether an endorser is an actual, current, or recent user of the product or service

- Continuing to utilize endorsements after the endorser has or may have changed their opinion of the product or service

- Falsely implying that an endorsement represents the experience and views of users or claimed users

- Using endorsements to make misleading claims about performance

- Not disclosing a material connection with an endorser

- Falsely depicting an endorser’s experience as representative of the average customer

The FTC also warns that such reviews can be unlawful, so we will likely see an FTC crackdown on fake reviews in the coming year. And the EU is set to follow, with fake reviews on online stores and digital platforms officially banned from May 2022.

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David Geithner

David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP and COO, IMG Events and On Location.