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Fake Reviews Become a Paycheck

August 29, 2011

While past RetailWire discussions have explored how online reviews can be skewed by motivations to earn higher rankings as a reviewer, turns out there's an easier to way for brands or retailers to gain positive reviews: cold hard cash.

An article in The New York Times pointed to several ads across the internet offering pay-for-review deals. On Fiverr.com, a help-for-hire website, one of several similar pitches stated, "For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business." On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, "I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor." A Craigslist post stated, "If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond."

The Times also quoted a freelance writer, Sandra Parker, who was "hired by a review factory this spring to pump out Amazon reviews for $10 each." She told the Times, "We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one.

The article pointed out the fibbed reviews comes as "boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind."

Moreover, the article noted that it's difficult to determine the number of fake reviews on the web but scores of companies, including Amazon, Google, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, have approached Cornell researchers as part of their efforts to reduce them. As profiled in an Aug. 2 RetailWire discussion, the researchers created a computer algorithm based on the language used in reviews proved able determine if they were fake with close to 90 percent accuracy.

"Any one review could be someone's best friend, and it's impossible to tell that in every case," Russell Dicker, Amazon's director of community, told the Times. "We are continuing to invest in our ability to detect these problems."

As explored in a RetailWire discussion on July 1, Cornell researchers, analyzing Amazon's rankings, found that reviews are also slanted positive partly because people tend to accentuate the positive but also because negative reviews lower a reviewer's rankings.

But the Times article pointed out two other ways reviews can be influenced.

The first is overly encouraging positive reviews. The Cove hotel in Cornwall, England was taken to task by the British media for soliciting guests to post an "honest but positive review on TripAdvisor in exchange for a future 10 percent discount. The hotel claimed its loyalty scheme was being misconstrued."

The other is hiring a reputation management company. Andrew Allison, chief executive at one such company, Main Street Hub, told the Times, "A courteous response to a negative review can persuade the reviewer to change their reviews from two to three or four stars."

Discussion Questions:

How big a threat is the apparent rise in fake reviews to the integrity of online reviews? What, if anything, can online merchants, brands and review sites be doing to curtail the practice of writing fake reviews?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How big a threat is the apparent rise in fake reviews to the integrity of online reviews?

Comments:

With researching online reviews becoming more and more a part of the purchasing process it was only a matter of time before someone said, "Hey there is money to be made." First it was just the reviewers' egos that were being stroked. Now they can have their egos stroked and their wallets fattened.

I think there is real a danger that the fake reviews taint all reviews. Once everyone decides five star ratings look too fake, then heck let's move it down to four stars because they are more believable. While I believe ratings/reviews will still be part of the purchase process, I believe stories like that in the NY Times will cause consumers to be more cautious in believing the glowing reports they read.

For the legit online retailer I think the most important thing they can do is not to hire or encourage fake reviews. An honest review that indicates problems can help the retailer address an issue that they may not know that they have.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

Fake reviews have always been a threat to the integrity of third-party reviews. Whether employees pose as satisfied consumers or reviewers are bribed, it's hard to know in an online forum how much is real and how much is fake or manipulated. Consumers counting on third party reviews need to develop a good nose for BS and also simply assume some of what they are seeing is not genuine (including the possibility of competitors seeding bad reviews).

Dan Berthiaume, Editor, Independent consultant

If allowed to become a common occurrence, it would have a dramatic effect on the credibility on reviews, which today are very heavily relied upon. Software solutions are key and must be invested in. That will weed out the quality sites from the rest.

Dan Stanek, EVP, Big Red Rooster

I think one method for usurping such skewed results is when the website shows the percent of 5, 4, 3, etc. ratings for the item being reviewed. This helps the consumer to see how balanced the reviews are and if they need to dig a little deeper.
Hopefully consumers who see great reviews, buy and are disappointed with the product will then write an honest review of their own. You can probably game the system for a little while at the onset, but you can't defeat crowds in the long run. Great reviews can't cover up a faulty product or bad service forever.

Matt Hahn, Planning Manager, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts

Bigger threat is paying people to write bad reviews about the competition.

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Mel Kleiman, President, Humetrics

I'm not so sure glowing phony reviews are a new phenomenon. I think they have always permeated the web and researchers are just figuring out the scope of the practice.

The key new difference is the systematic use of crowd-sourcing mechanisms to sweep in large numbers of reviewers using micro-payments. A good writer could easily take in $10 in an hour by writing 50 words of praise for various sites. High-value coupons are another nice incentive. Very attractive for starving college students, mommy bloggers and others with time and web access.

That's a relative bargain for marketers who are used to paying professional copywriters $200 an hour or more. Plus the variety of voices makes the fakery harder to sniff out, as the Cornell researchers have demonstrated.

All this gets my entrepreneurial juices flowing. Here's a proposition for you: For a modest sum of $49.95, I will write and post an original, stunningly positive review of any RetailWire reader on their LinkedIn page. Price for company pages is $199.95. Lavish praise is guaranteed. My reputation is impeccable - just check out the reviews on my website.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

When using online reviews in a purchase decision I look for comments not ratings. Does the product deliver on users' expectations? What are their likes dislikes. What would they change, etc.? The more of those reviews you have the less likely you are to have fakes.

'OscarSmith'

Like any other arms race, it's constant a tug-of-war between review sites, reviewers and “reviewees.” Rankings or reviews - people will always find a way to game the system.
Here's my system to filter the "friendly reviews": read through the worst reviews first and some in the middle, before looking at the positive reviews. One can generally tell whether the glowing reviews are genuine warmth or radioactivity!

Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight

I don't think online reviews have ever really had much credibility, not so much because there aren't many good ones - there are - but because it's either too much work, or just downright impossible to separate out the garbage. Does this (downright fraud) make a bad situation worse? Yes. Does it matter? Probably not.

'notcom'

Who could possibly be surprised by this as it seems inevitable considering how the Internet works. Perhaps this will bring back the value of professional reviews of products and services, which has taken a hit in the name of "honest, authentic reviews by REAL people". Of course, pro reviews can be gamed as well, but at real risk to all. Like many things, I think as this trend develops we will find some balance emerge, or at least I hope so. Media and media experts have lauded the consumer review and pointed out its value. This is true. Now these same participants have an equal obligation to point out the flaws in this, so as to advise people to look at both sides in balance. If not, then expect legal actions by groups seeking redress from vendors and retailers who they feel misled them in purchases. Seems like folks should be proactive and so think hard about getting these reviews for hire.

Robert Heiblim, Principal, RH Associates

The integrity of online reviewers will only be called into question by the savviest of online users, but the real issue is that those users also tend to be thought leaders who are more often setting setting trends online. Customer reviews will still serve an important purpose, but there are additional tools that retailers can provide online shoppers to enhance their product research.

One option is to augment your customer reviews with a social question and answer system that enables shoppers to get their product questions answered by people who actually bought the item or service they are considering. Done right, a social question and answer system delivers answers to a shopper question within hours from multiple buyers of the item, and it enables the shopper to continue a back-and-forth exchange with those purchasers for follow-up questions. In other words, it provides the sort of social experience that would be very hard to fake. So shoppers can be confident that the answerer's sentiment is trustworthy.

Further, a store's willingness to put shoppers directly in touch with real customers says a lot about the confidence the store has in its products, service and customer satisfaction. This confidence produces a "halo effect" that adds to the credibility of the store's customer reviews, too. Shoppers might figure "why would this store fake their reviews when they are giving me direct access to their customers?"

While customer reviews will continue to be an important part of the online shopping experience, complementing them with social question and answer is a powerful way to improve review credibility address the concerns of the review skeptics.

Andrew Pettit, Director of Marketing, TurnTo Networks

Authenticity will prevail. Consumers are becoming too savvy to fall for these schemes.

I'm far from a bureaucrat, but industry standards are needed here: how reviews are solicited, the role (if any) for compensation, establishing a rating scale, who archives the reviews and where, how and when can a retailer respond all need definition and consistency.

Armen Najarian, Vice President, Corporate Marketing, DemandTec, an IBM Company

Fake reviews? Isn't that what we call advertising? Why would merchants or brands want to curtail them? Aren't they the ones responsible?

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

On a personal side, I have lost faith in ALL online reviews for the most part. All I see is "I like it!", "I hate it!", "I like it!", "I hate it!", "I like it!", "I hate it!" UGH!! The only help I can get from the reviews are specific comments on the positive or negative aspects of particular aspect of the product being reviewed, e.g., "The TV doesn't have a sleep timer." That gives me information that I can use.

Otherwise, I think there may be a strong opportunity for a "VeriSign"-type software that will require legitimate reviewers to pre-qualify as a reviewer.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

I only read the negative reviews. I have to assume the good reviews are planted by the manufacturer. To verify, I would randomly call a few people who give good reviews and validate them with a star or some other marking. Two valid reviews are worth more than one hundred fake ones. Another idea is to offer the product randomly to a few people who "view" the product but don't buy it. (The person who will buy it with no questions asked isn't the person you want here. The reviews are for people thinking about buying the product). They try it for 30 days, write a review and get a 20% refund for their time and effort, or they return it for a full refund. This information would be especially valuable for making the next model better.

'falconflight3'

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