28/08/2020 - 12:00

Fake reviews surge in pandemic

28/08/2020 - 12:00


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Gary Martin says the coronavirus pandemic has fuelled digital shopping sprees, with consumers flocking to online reviews.

Fake reviews surge in pandemic
Consumers have been warned to approach online reviews with caution. Image: Morning Brew

A wrinkle cream that strips away 20 years, a capsule that blocks up to 1,000 calories a day, a hotel with blood-stained headboards and an amazing dairy product that reduces cholesterol.

These are all sensational claims made by those who appraise products and services on various online review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon and Google. 

But how much faith should you have in the millions of online reviews posted each year by customers across the world?    

If the coronavirus pandemic has pushed you to do most of your shopping online, there is a good chance you have turned to online reviews – the internet’s answer to walking into a store and trying something out for yourself.

Experts believe many consumers have as much trust in online reviews as they do in a personal recommendation from someone they know, and that more than half of us will check digital reviews prior to purchasing a product.

It is a fact that, during this pandemic, online reviews have helped enormously to grease the wheels of a digital shopping frenzy.

At the same time, we have been warned to approach online reviews with caution. After all, consumer viewpoints are exceptionally subjective and vary enormously.

A case in point is the almost 15,000 Google reviews of the Great Wall of China, which achieves an average rating of 4.2 stars.

Most would agree that the 1,800-year-old and 21,000-kilometre wall is an amazing human feat.  

Yet comments posted online that include 'too much wall', 'the worst experience ever with too many stairs', 'it’s too long' and 'the Great Wall of China isn’t that great' are all indicative of the fact there simply is no pleasing everyone.

Yet these types of negative reviews should not concern us.                  

What is alarming is the spike in the number of fake reviews as our online shopping expeditions surge. And these dodgy reviews are leaving even the most discerning of shoppers marinating in misery as they rapidly discover that all that glitters is not gold.

Even before these COVID-19 times, companies were gaining a reputation for planting positive reviews of their own products online at the same time as sullying competitors’ products with negative reviews. 

In a practice known as astroturfing, some businesses incentivise their customers to post glowing, over-the-top positive reviews – often to offset a string of authentic negative reviews.   

Some online businesses even engage so-called e-reputation agencies, which put their teams to work to ensure products and services receive first-class fake digital reviews. 

Others ask employees, friends and families to write reviews that portray their products and services as far superior to any other comparable product in the market.

In a twisted sense of irony as we increasingly trust online reviews, more and more bogus reviews are appearing. Some experts believing that around 20 per cent of all online reviews are fraudulent.

A handful of savvy shoppers are becoming wise to the wicked ways of scammers.  

Adopting the approach that if something looks wrong, it probably is, they will tell you there are ways to ferret out fake reviews that might prevent a shopper from being duped.

As a start, look out for extremes.

Spectacularly positive reviews can be a sign of a sham. For example: 'The best place to stay in the whole wide world' is clearly over the top. On the other hand, those reviews that attempt to give a product or service an absolute belting: 'The place was a hole only to be found in hell' are often far from real.

A lack of consistency between the number of stars awarded and the comments made might signify a rushed attempt by a fake reviewer who was paid to post 10 knock-off-style reviews in 15 minutes.

Check out, too, the timing of reviews. If there is a cluster of very positive reviews all posted within, say, a half-hour period, it might signify a dump-and-run approach by a paid reviewer who has been instructed to visit a site to beef up an overall product rating.

Keep an eye out for industry-specific lingo that the average user would be unlikely to use and watch out for 'customer jacking', where a reviewer makes a comment like: 'I tried this product, hated it and promptly bought [insert competitor product name] which I absolutely adore'.

And there is always the possibility of reaching out to the reviewer.

Authentic reviewers will often be quick off the mark to reply to online messages. Messages to fraudulent reviewers, on the other hand, rarely trigger a response.

If you remain unconvinced about the validity of a review, you can consider taking your detective work to the next level by enlisting the services of online sites like Fakespot and ReviewMeta. Both offer online tools that can help to identify tell-tale signs of phoney reviews.  

In these COVID-19 times, the murky world of fake reviews will remain a clear and present danger. 

It is therefore best to heed the age-old and timeless advice that first appearances can be deceiving, and approach each and every online review with a healthy dose of scepticism.

  • Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA


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