Consumers overwhelmingly expect the reviews they peruse on Amazon, Yelp, Google and other review sites to be trustworthy, neutral and objective. But this reasonable expectation is frequently thwarted by the efforts of aggressive marketers who pay third parties to create phony reviews in exchange for compensation or incentivize existing good customers to leave reviews with discounts or free products or services.
These deceptive practices — termed “opinion spam” or “sock puppetry” — are a form of information pollution with multiple victims. Opinion spam blinds the consumer to the truth and poisons the reputation of the review site where the fake review appears. When detected, it may subject the marketer and/or opinion spammer to criminal and civil penalties.
Unfortunately, opinion spam — despite the best efforts of review sites to control it — appears to be a permanent, intractable feature of the e-commerce and local business information ecosystem.
Not that reviews sites aren’t trying. In 2015, Amazon filed a lawsuit against a company that offered false four- and five-star reviews for product pages. Later that year, Amazon sued over 1,100 sellers of fake reviews who allegedly posted reviews in exchange for money. And in early 2016, it sued three of its own vendors for the same practice.
Later that year, Amazon changed its Community Guidelines to prohibit reviews solicited by marketers in exchange for incentives such as discounts, freebies or other rewards. Such “incentivized reviews” had hitherto been permitted by the service. These steps — plus the development of algorithms targeting fake reviews — are all intended to clean up its messy marketplace.
Google — which for decades has warred against SEO spammers — in 2016 warned product review bloggers to disclose any compensation-based relationships with vendors and to nofollow any links to sites with whom such a relationship exists. These steps were taken to align the company’s practices better with US law, particularly Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which outlaws deceptive advertising.
And Yelp — which estimated in 2013 that between 20 percent and 25 percent of its 70 million reviews were “suspicious” — has been forced to resort to undercover sting operations involving “decoy accounts” to keep its legions of opinion spammers at bay.
The siren song of sockpuppetry
As a marketer, you’re fully aware of how critical online reviews are to your business. You may have already been tempted by a consultant or social media agency to “go over to the dark side” and start posting some complimentary reviews about your own stuff on Amazon, Google or Yelp. Here are some typical arguments you might hear — along with reasons you need to resist the temptation:
‘Everybody (including your competition) is doing it.’
Hypercompetitive consumer categories appear to be highly attractive to opinion spam. According to an anonymous former Amazon opinion spammer interviewed by Digiday earlier this year, review requests for “mobile phone accessories, Bluetooth devices, and sometimes baby products” are especially frequent, but any popular product category will likely attract opinion spam because spam “follows the money.”
It’s very difficult to counsel marketers who sincerely believe that they are the target of opinion spam (either positive or negative) that they should not resort to the same tactics used by their competitors, especially those who’ve already listened to the second argument, which is:
‘If you’re smart about it, you’ll never get caught.’
Unfortunately, there’s more truth to this statement than there should be because every move made by the review sites to clean things up is met by increasingly sophisticated workarounds from opinion spammers.
For example, when Amazon forbade compensation-based reviews in 2016, opinion spammers reportedly shifted their tactics to those less easily detectable (e.g., by offering to recompense the reviewer after the purchase of the reviewed item or by telling the reviewer to simply buy the product and return it within Amazon’s 30-day return window).
The truth is that if one carefully studies the weak points of each review site, is exceptionally stealthy and takes care to hide one’s tracks, it’s possible to insert opinion spam into the conversational chain at will without fear of suffering any short-term negative consequences.
The long-term scenario, however, is much less friendly to the prospective opinion spammer. Algorithms — some proprietary to the review sites, others available as third-party tools — are getting better at flagging opinion spam, using a mix of linguistic, behavioral and relational signals to zero in on the offender.
Additionally, federal and state public entities are growing increasingly active in policing bad actors. So while the odds of being caught in 2017 remain low, they’re bound to increase as technology and law enforcement begin to catch up to opinion spammers. Remember, soliciting fake reviews is illegal — are a couple of five-star reviews really worth breaking the law?
What’s a marketer to do?
Opinion spam is a part of life. But as discussed above, it’s foolish and risky to fight it directly by resorting to the same tactics as your opponents. So what can a marketer do?
Make full use of white-hat methods to encourage reviews.
Review quantity and review recency count, and there are many things you can do to increase your flow of reviews from actual customers. Here are some methods for encouraging customers to review your wares that will never get you into trouble:
- Emailing recent customers with a request to review the product or service, along with a link to the location where the review should appear.Including a card in each product you ship that asks the recipient to hop onto Amazon.com to post a review.Posting signs at your physical place of business notifying consumers that reviews are appreciated (albeit not rewarded/incentivized).
Emphasize the undeniably valid reviews you’ve got.
One unintended byproduct of the current state of online review unreliability is the increased importance of vetted review sites such as Consumer Reports. Many competitive CPG verticals (e.g., cars, cameras, computers, software and so on) have bona fide review sites associated with them whose reputations are high due to the fact that they are not open – and will never be open — to outside evaluators.
So, don’t leave your product’s reputation in the exclusive (and anonymous) hands of internet reviewers; get it into the hands of pro reviewers whose publications have integrity.
Inform on bad actors.
If you see something, say something. Sure, nobody likes to be thought of as a “snitch,” a “fink” or a “rat,” but if you have reason to believe that your competition is resorting to opinion spam, report them to the review site (Believe me, they’d do the same to you at the drop of a hat).
Remember, you and the review site — be it Amazon, Google or Yelp — are allies in the battle against opinion spam. If you’re going to go this route, it’s ideal to provide the best forensic evidence you can obtain, so make use of sites such as Fakespot.com and ReviewSkeptic.com, which let you paste in a URL from a review site (or the text of the review itself) in order to evaluate the probability that it’s real or fake.
Adopt a responsive consumer relations posture that responds quickly to reviews — both good and bad.
While some online consumers will credulously accept any review they stumble across, many are sophisticated and discerning enough to realize that no business is perfect and not every customer is perfectly happy. If negative reviews appear on your page, acknowledge them and open up a channel to the complainant in order to make things right.
Being active and responsive in the review space will be seen as proof that you’re paying attention, you care, and above all, you’re human. These qualities are important — arguably more important than ever in an information ecosystem in which “real” and “fake” are, even with the best available anti-spam algorithms, often maddeningly difficult to tell apart.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.