The Telltale Signs of Fake Reviews
If you don’t believe fake online reviews are a growing problem, just try searching Google News for “online reviews.” As of this writing, my first result for that search is an article from WDIV ClickOnDetroit with the title, “Is that online review real? Here’s how to spot a fake.” A sampling of other titles: “Should we trust online reviews?” “States Should Crack Down on Bogus Online Reviews, Advocates Say.” “Study examines the impact of fake online reviews on sales.” “Online reviews are broken — here’s how to fix them.” In all, five of the top ten news results for “online reviews” are about the problem of fake reviews.
Growing awareness among consumers and the press has a few root causes, not least of which is the spotlight the FTC has been training on fake and fraudulent review practices since early 2022. FTC actions so far this year have included fines (notably a $4.2 million fine for suppressing negative reviews, levied against a fashion retailer), warning letters (to the company who helped the retailer and several others), and new guidelines for publishers and retailers.
More recently, the FTC has offered guidance to consumers, encouraging a healthy skepticism towards reviews that may show signs of being fake, as well as a help page that details the process for reporting suspicious reviews on platforms including Amazon, Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Trustpilot. The Better Business Bureau also recently offered guidelines on spotting and reporting fake reviews.
Curtis Boyd is the founder of a Southern California-based company, The Transparency Co, which has gained significant attention in recent months for the technology Boyd has developed to detect fake reviews at scale. Boyd’s company has recently secured government contracts to help ferret out fake reviews online.
Without revealing too much of the company’s secret sauce, I wanted to ask Boyd to identify some of the telltale signs — whether obvious or counterintuitive — of a fake review, and to share his observations about the current state of the fake reviews problem.
How do you define “fake reviews” — let’s say within a local search context in particular — and should they be subdivided into types?
Fake reviews are online reviews created with the intent to deceive others and artificially inflate ratings. These are reviews that were written or published by someone that never had an experience with the organization in question.
I think the best subdivision is understanding if the reviewer profile is real or not, as the review content of a fake review will never be real. Fake reviews left by real profiles are a sign of extreme incentivization, networking, or other methods of getting real people to publish fiction. Fake reviews left by fake profiles are a sign of paid reviews.
Is the fake reviews problem in a better or a worse state in local search than other areas, such as app reviews or online product reviews? (The FTC recently announced a lawsuit against rental app Roomster for, in part, buying fake app reviews.)
It’s my opinion that app reviews are likely to be the worst. It’s gotten so bad that Google even discloses that they don’t verify app reviews or browser plugin reviews, as you can see in the screenshot below for our own Chrome extension.
Between local reviews and online product reviews, the incidence of fake reviews is about the same across the internet. As far as the most rampant topics for fake reviews, cannabis reviews in local measures close to Bluetooth devices in e-com.
Are any industries within local search particularly susceptible to fake reviews?
All industries within local search are susceptible to fake reviews, but consumers stand to lose more from fake reviews in specific industries. Consumers can put themselves into very precarious situations with doctors, lawyers, and home service providers who can really ruin their lives.
Some industries use fake reviews to take advantage of consumers who don’t have much time to make a purchasing decision — like locksmiths, moving companies, and emergency care centers.
Is the fake reviews problem getting better or worse, in local search or generally?
The fake reviews problem as a whole is getting worse each year. In 2019, Google disclosed that they removed 55 million fake reviews. In 2020, that number increased to 75 million. In 2021, they removed 95 million fake reviews.
Today, more than 20 million reviews and images are posted to Google Maps per day. Based on Google’s own stats above, less than 1% of that content is being moderated properly.
Review fraud in Local Services Ads (LSA) on Google is also skyrocketing.
What are some of the telltale signs of a fake local review — perhaps some of the signs that would be more noticeable to the average consumer and some that might not be?
Let’s start with the noticeable signs.
- Duplicate content: when multiple reviews have the same text or repeated phrases
- Anonymous profiles on Google: when spammers make use of anonymous profiles to hide fake accounts
- Lack of category diversity: when a given reviewer only ever reviews one type of business (clicking the reviewer name will show you all reviews they’ve written)
- Major geographical distances between businesses being reviewed
- Exclamation points and over the top sentiment: these are uncommon features in genuine reviews
And here are some of the less noticeable signs:
- Reviews written by review pods: when groups of users are all engaged in posting fake reviews; these can be hard for non-experts to detect
- Keyword stuffing: since keywords in reviews are now a local ranking factor, spammers might write otherwise genuine-sounding reviews that happen to be stuffed with keywords for ranking purposes
- Authorship clusters: when the same author uses multiple user profiles; again, difficult for non-experts to spot
Do you feel it’s generally effective to report fake reviews to publishers?
For the most part, no.
Samuel Levine, the director of Consumer Protection at the FTC, recently posted an article about measures that publishers could take to prevent fake reviews. This quote really stood out to me: “What many of these platforms seem to lack now is the will and incentive to take these measures. (A separate confounding factor: a federal law, the Communications Decency Act, makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies like the FTC to hold online services accountable for the proliferation of bogus reviews prepared by others on their sites.)”
Big tech is protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows tech companies to monetize reviews, both real and fake, without much liability.
Let’s add another variable: business interest. An overwhelming majority of fake reviews are positive reviews, designed to fool consumers. Removing fake reviews would serve consumer interests, and It’s my opinion that publishers don’t serve consumer interests. Consumers don’t pay the bills; businesses do.
How would you like to see the local search space work toward meaningful reduction of fake reviews? What’s a realistic path to improvement?
Local search publishers make use of moderation teams that often refuse to remove fake reviews. There is very little accountability from big tech, and our regulating branches of government, like the FTC, are extremely understaffed and underfunded, despite some recent actions in the right direction.
There are three things that I think would be realistic and dramatically beneficial.
- Enforcement. In particular, this means working with the offices of state attorney generals. Most individual states have a larger AG budget than the budget of the entire FTC. For example, the FTC had a total budget of $330 million in 2021. The California Attorney General had a $1.1 billion dollar budget. The state AG’s offices are well funded and have enough bandwidth to go after companies large and small. At the Transparency Co, we’ve contracted with six different AG offices this year alone to pursue bad actors.
- Adoption of fake review detection technology among major reputation management players. Alerting customers that they have fake reviews and need to take action, or alerting customers that their competitors have fake reviews and can take action to remove them, will help bring more attention to how rampant of a problem this is.
- Educating consumers on how to perform better due diligence. Consumers need quick and easy access to consumer-focused websites that will show them which companies have real reviews. They don’t have time to check themselves, and many of them can’t afford to make a $500 mistake by hiring a company that has represented itself fraudulently.