What’s Behind Google’s Fake Review Problem?

Fake reviews are more than just unethical — they’re bad for business. Nearly two-thirds of consumers say they check Google reviews before visiting a business location, but according to the results of a new report, more of those reviews are fake than people realize.

In an analysis of more than 4 million store reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, Uberall and The Transparency Company found that Google has the highest average percentage of inauthentic reviews across business categories. More than one in 10 reviews on Google’s platform was identified as fraudulent or fake in Uberall’s analysis. The category with the highest percentage of fake reviews was locksmiths, while pharmacies came in as the category with the lowest percentage of fake reviews.

“Since this is the first year of the study, we don’t have [year-over-year] comparison data. However, third-party consumer survey data over time, credible media reports, as well as anecdotal findings from digital marketers suggest the problem is growing,” says Greg Sterling, Uberall’s vice president of market insights.

Executives at top review platforms have become more vocal about how many fake reviews they are removing, but talking about the problem may not be enough to stem the tide. Sterling says the evidence suggests that if nothing is done, fake reviews will continue to proliferate and consumers will over time rely on them less.

Sixty-six percent of consumers say fake reviews are a growing problem or a major problem. The most common type of fraud involves fake profiles with fake reviews, generated or paid for by the business itself. Although it’s difficult to quantify, Uberall found that the value of review fraud is likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

A Losing Game

Sterling says the evidence is clear that review fraud is a losing game for business owners. Google’s emphasis on reviews as a ranking signal in local search may be partially to blame for the proliferation of review mills that write positive reviews for a price, as business owners look for any chance to get ahead of the competition. However, Sterling says he hopes Uberall’s new report will bring a greater understanding of the problems in the industry and convince platforms to make more consistent and aggressive efforts to remove, block, or preempt fraudulent content.

“Google [and] Amazon need to see this as a threat to consumer trust and ultimately their brands on some level,” Sterling says. “These big platforms can do much more to enforce their content guidelines.” 

Case in point: Facebook’s lax enforcement of its own policies, as outlined in the recent Facebook papers controversy. Sterling says the same is true of other platforms. Inconsistency is rampant throughout the online reviews industry.

The most obvious solution is for platforms to implement location verification or to rely exclusively on verified purchasers for reviews. 

Another solution that Sterling favors is Apple’s approach: introducing a native review platform that offers only a thumbs up or down recommendation with no option for written comments. Apple is using device location and presenting review opportunities to users when it sees they have visited a place multiple times, with the option to only accept reviews from users who have actually been to a business in person. While the approach is intriguing, Sterling cautions that it’s also untested.

In the interim, and with trust in online reviews at all time lows, Sterling believes we may start to see people looking more closely at expert reviews and relying comparatively less on user reviews.

“This is what I’ve done,” he says. “I really don’t read reviews on Amazon in the way I used to — and I completely disregard the many ‘most loved X by Amazon reviewer’ roundups online. I look at expert reviews and make product decisions that way, and then I may buy the item on Amazon. I may look at some Amazon-verified purchaser reviews — even those can be cheated — but I no longer ‘start’ on Amazon.”

​​Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

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