Do you take the time to read reviews from other customers before ordering something online? If you do, you’re in good company, as about 95% of shoppers do the same. However, you probably know that not all reviews online can be trusted. In the digital marketplace, it is common for unscrupulous companies or individuals to generate fake reviews, either to boost their sales or harm the reputation of their competitors. The proliferation of these deceptive reviews has become a huge problem in the e-commerce world. That is why six online titans have formed the Coalition for Trusted Reviews. Amazon joined Booking.com, Expedia Group, Glassdoor, Tripadvisor, and Trustpilot to share best practices and fight fake online reviews.
The Problem of Fabricated Reviews
Dharmesh Mehta, VP of Worldwide Selling Partner Services at Amazon, emphasizes the importance of customer reviews in the shopping experience in a statement: “Customer reviews are an important part of the shopping experience, and the goal of this coalition is to ensure every review reflects customers’ actual experiences.” Other platforms are also taking this issue very seriously. Fraudulent reviews have always been illegal and are a major problem for consumers. Consumers rely on reviews to make informed choices, and these reviews can lead to disappointment, financial losses, and a loss of trust. Legitimate businesses can suffer reputational damage when fake negative reviews are posted by malicious competitors.
This phenomenon is more widespread than you think; Amazon alone removes millions of fake reviews per year from its platform. As an e-commerce professional, I always pay attention to customer reviews, as these are a great source of feedback on our offer. I have seen very obvious fake negative reviews on some of my products, but sometimes these can be more difficult to identify.
Misleading reviews can take many forms, from the most amateurish to the most sophisticated. Malicious actors can create fake accounts to post reviews or even form alliances with other sellers to create more reviews. However, most of the fake reviews online come from specialized companies that offer their services to malicious sellers. There are also more sophisticated ways to post fake testimonials, such as listings hijacking on Amazon or the use of artificial intelligence.
The Coalition and What is Considered a Fake Review
Recognizing the detrimental impact of fake reviews, the Coalition for Trusted Reviews has identified four core areas of focus, according to the Amazon press center:
- Industry Alignment: Developing common standards and definitions for use throughout the industry around what constitutes a fake review and other content moderation nomenclature and measurement.
- Best Practice Sharing: Defining best practices for hosting online reviews and sharing information on updated content moderation processes and methods of fake review detection.
- Information Sharing: Sharing information relating to how fraudulent actors operate, such as companies selling fake reviews to businesses seeking to unfairly and improperly improve their reputations.
- Advocacy: Engaging with academics and public policy leaders to promote the benefits to consumers of review content and support industry efforts to combat fake reviews from being published.
All of these areas will be crucial in fighting deceptive reviews, as this is a complex and widespread practice. It seems like each actor currently has a different opinion on what constitutes a fake review. Paying a company to post five-star reviews on your product under fake identities is obviously fraud. But what about if your friends and family buy your product? And can you ask legitimate customers to review your product in exchange for a discount? Defining what a fabricated review is will be a complex problem, as gray areas exist, and different actors have different ways to collect and display product reviews.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) already sees fake reviews as against the law due to misleading customers. Earlier this year, the commission sought to propose new rules defining deceptive online reviews. For example, they define that reviews can’t claim to be written by a person who doesn’t exist. The FTC is also against businesses removing negative reviews on their offer by threatening legal actions. While gray areas still exist, it is interesting to see that regulators and businesses are looking into this issue. According to Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection: “Regardless of the liability regime, it is in the interests of consumers and the businesses that use these platforms for them to be policing this problem better. They have the most visibility into what’s happening, they are often in the best position to stop it, and we want them to be doing more.”
What Can Be Done to Fight Fake Reviews?
While defining what constitutes a fake review is a good start, most of the challenge lies in countering them. Malicious sellers and actors are well organized and employ advanced technologies to post their reviews. I will be very interested to see how the new coalition will react and what measures we will see. Several tools are currently available to fight fraudulent reviews, even though continuous improvement is necessary to stay relevant amid evolving fraudulent tactics.
Technology will most likely play a significant role. Advanced algorithms, machine learning, and pattern recognition can identify unusual patterns in language and content, such as overly and unusually positive keywords. Algorithms can also look into reviewers’ history and detect suspicious accounts, for example, if they post large quantities of overly positive or negative reviews (Online Karens are in reality not as common as the internet may suggest). When a suspicious review or user is flagged, this data is used to refine and update the detection algorithms. Over time, the algorithms become more adept at recognizing new tactics used by malicious actors. And in the most complex cases, human moderators can jump in and use nuanced judgment.
In addition to technology, companies can set up verification steps to ensure the authenticity of the reviews posted, such as requiring reviewers to verify their identity before they can post. Legal action can also be a way to fight fake reviews. Although going after organizations providing these reviews can be difficult, as they tend to operate from all over the world, it can send a strong message. Websites and platforms taking advantage of deceptive reviews to promote some products over others should also face legal actions for misleading customers.
With millions of fraudulent reviews posted every year and the increasing sophistication of technology used by “review farms,” tracking and fighting them will be a massive challenge, even for industry giants. The FTC’s growing concerns over this issue highlight the negative impact on businesses’ reputations. We can only hope that the Coalition for Trusted Reviews will make a difference in the war against fake reviews.