Buyer Beware: Fake Online Reviews


By Samuel Greengard

It's both a blessing and a curse that the Internet provides easy access to product reviews and opinions. On one hand, it's possible to get an everyman's (and woman's) view of eateries, shops, products, tours and whatever else one might desire. In many cases, it can be argued that technology democratizes shopping and provides valuable insights.

On the other hand, create any system for the betterment of humans, and you can bet that a small but significant portion of the population will attempt to game the system. This includes people who would probably consider themselves morale and law abiding.

All it takes is a stroll down online review lane to see how bad things have gotten. Last week, Yelp unleashed the latest salvo in the war against fake user-generated reviews after it caught unscrupulous businesses paying for fake reviews (gasp!). It now offers a consumer alert that notifies a user that a business was caught "red-handed" stuffing reviews. The alert also includes a link that displays the damning evidence.

Last year, TripAdvisor trumpeted a new algorithm that would supposedly knock down fake reviews. Alas, The New York Times reported in July that there seemed to be no shortage of suspicious activity.

For example, Starwood Hotels and Resorts had generated an inordinate number of positive reviews about its properties—with a large number originating from a single user name in all corners of the world. It later claimed to have addressed what it described as a technical glitch, while a Trip Advisor spokesperson indicated that the firm was continuing to do its very best to thwart review fraud.

Frankly, I'm not sure who bases buying decision on e-reviews. It seems to be the Wild West of cyberspace—with some people reportedly pocketing up to $5 for each fake review. Worse, some accuse Yelp and other sites of removing overly negative reviews that were authentic, and a number of disgruntled merchants have sued reviewers for posting negative comments about their business.

What's most astounding about all of this is how far down the rabbit hole things have gone. Bad reviews, along with negative social media posts, have spawned an array of reputation management services. One of these sites goes so far as to "offer an extremely flexible SEO campaign that combines a reputation defender, reputation promoter and a bad review buster all in one."

Why deal with reality and actual shortcomings when you can throw up a smokescreen? Unfortunately, that's business in the digital age.