How to identify and counter bogus online reviews

Consumers put great stock in endorsements and in damning assessments of products and services, but some such writeups are completely fake. Here’s how to spot them and respond.

Online reviews sway consumers—but many of them are fabricated.

Fake online reviews hurt honest businesses, give dishonest businesses an unfair advantage and undermine the entire market.

Research shows that 86% of consumers read reviews for local businesses, and 57% will patronize only those businesses with four or more stars.

Star ratings often mislead shoppers, and fake online reviews are pervasive. Estimates of the problem vary, depending on the category and platform. A 2018 Washington Post analysis found that more half of Amazon reviews in some categories were suspicious.

Some businesses pay services or freelance writers to churn out flattering five-star reviews. The most unscrupulous pay writers to publish negative reviews about competitors. Others give customers incentives to write fake reviews. SEO firms might include bogus reviews in their services, sometimes without revealing the tactic to clients.

The FTC recently took action against a cosmetics firm that encouraged its employees to falsify product assessments. Businesses that buy fake reviews can have their accounts suspended by review platforms such as Amazon, Google or Yelp. They also risk lawsuits from competitors, class-action suits from aggressive attorneys, and investigations by state attorney general offices.

Yet the practice of fake reviews shows no sign of slowing. One-third of consumers spotted “lots of” fake reviews in 2018—up from 25% the previous year.

PR and marketing personnel can look for these red flags to spot questionable reviews—for their own companies as well as competitors:

  • Many reviews of a new product. Disreputable businesses often post many bogus comments on new products to boost awareness and sales. Some sites have programs that mark reviews of new items written by reviewers who are sometimes compensated.
  • Many at once. Multiple one-star or five-star reviews are posted over a very brief period.
  • Lack of detail. These offer few or no specifics about products, times or situations.
  • Nothing else reviewed. One extremely positive or negative comment appears from a reviewer who has never reviewed anything else.
  • Oddly similar. Repeated words and phrases or a similar writing style will crop up in multiple reviews.
  • Many verbs, fewer nouns. Genuine reviews focus more on situations and mention more concrete nouns.
  • More first-person pronouns. When reviewers want to sound sincere but aren’t, they use more first-person pronouns like “I” and “me,” notes the Digital Marketing Institute.
  • Oddly specific. In positive reviews, fake reviewers tend to write out full product names, even long ones, for SEO purposes. Legitimate commenters tend to abbreviate and use nicknames.
  • Superlatives. Fake reviewers commonly use superlatives and exaggerate. Look for descriptions of the “worst” thing ever to happen, as well as excessive exclamation points.

Here’s how to counter negative and fake reviews:

  • Respond. Research indicates that real customers who write reviews and consumers who read reviews appreciate businesses that respond to negative reviews. Rather than suspecting that all negative reviews are fake, treat the sincere and specific negative reviews as market research and an opportunity.
  • Monitor comments. Many businesses rely on media monitoring to identify mentions of their company and products on online review boards as well as social media. A media monitoring service with automated email alerts helps businesses to respond promptly, which is essential for customer service and reputation management.
  • Ask for details. As fake reviews are typically general, ask for specifics while offering to make amends, suggests Reputation Stacker, an automated review service. Emphasize your commitment to customer service.
  • Question its authenticity. Politely question the review’s authenticity with something like: “We have no record of you visiting our business. Perhaps you have us confused with another business. Could you call us to resolve the issue?”
  • Seek a take down. If you believe a review is clearly fake or slanderous, consider requesting the platform to remove it. Be prepared to offer an explanation. Platforms will remove reviews if they violate their community standards of if the reviewer has a conflict of interest, but their response is not guaranteed.
  • Seek more positive reviews. Request that customers post honest reviews. Asking for reviews immediately after the transaction will produce more reviews.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

Topics: PR

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