The concept of fake reviews is almost as old as the concept of reviews themselves.
History is liberally populated with scathing reviews of local restaurants by angry patrons, corporate sabotage by rival enterprises and public figures having their work trashed.
As with so many activities, the internet has given these dubious behaviours a new and more immediate canvas.
And regrettably, it’s also introduced the false positive – glowing reviews of a product, service or place written by or on behalf of the company being reviewed.
Recent scandals about ghost-written academic papers and false internet reviews have given this topic greater prominence, but there are still millions of bogus reviews online.
Yet spotting fake online reviews is essential if you want to make an informed choice about something.
Here are ten ways to differentiate genuine commentary from PR puffery or spiteful trolling…
1. Look beyond one-star and five-star reviews. People with an agenda tend to go all out, meaning most fake reviews will either be gushing or scathing.
Instead, read the more measured comments by people who recognise good and bad in whatever they’re critiquing. Fake reviews rarely offer this level of balance.
2. Be sceptical of single-review accounts. A scathing one-star critique from JohnSmith10011 carries little weight if it’s their first contribution to that site.
Fake reviews often come from accounts created for that specific purpose. Be suspicious of anyone who posts very good or very bad reviews with no previous activity on that platform.
3. Study recent reviews for trends. Unless a company is experiencing major problems, a swathe of bad reviews rarely arrives at once.
If a fairly strong overall rating is being dragged down by a host of bad reviews posted in quick succession, it could indicate a sabotage campaign or an attempt to discredit the firm.
4. Consider the platform itself. Review sites like Trustpilot and Feefo live and die by their authenticity, unlike ecommerce sites whose reviews are supplementary.
Dedicated review websites rarely allow people to post anonymously or without evidence of a purchase, whereas other platforms are less discerning about who gets to say what, and why.
5. Identify spelling errors. While some people genuinely struggle to write coherently, poor grammar and spelling are hallmarks of hastily-written bogus reviews.
These are often churned out by low-rent overseas writing bureaus, or even compiled by bots. Also be vigilant for the same mistakes, terms or phrases appearing in different reviews.
6. Disregard hyperbole. A great tip for spotting fake online reviews is to ignore anything sounding exaggerated or extreme.
It’s unlikely a meal was “the best I’ve ever eaten”, or that a missing parcel “ruined my life”. Other red flags include multiple exclamation marks, capital letters and over-use of verbs.
7. See if the company being critiqued has responded. Some sites support a right of reply, so check if companies being reviewed are also spotting fake online reviews.
If every reply says things like “we have no record of you being a customer”, or makes unanswered requests for a reference number, these reviews are very likely to be made up.
8. Ignore reviews which don’t say anything specific. Most fake reviews lack detail because they’re written by people who don’t really know what’s being describing.
Ignore comments focusing on the person rather than the product/service itself, and disregard reviews which only reference the thing supposedly being reviewed right at the end.
9. Investigate the profiles of particularly extreme reviewers. Do they have a long account history? Have they uploaded an avatar? Are they a verified customer?
If someone has posted 150 reviews, all with five stars, there’s a high chance they’re being paid to offer praise. Such profiles should be reported to the host website immediately.
10. Apply common sense. When Amazon was caught in a fake review sting last year by Which?, it mostly concerned inflated reviews of Chinese electronics.
Is a suspiciously affordable product from a company you’ve never heard of (which isn’t on sale anywhere else) really likely to have received hundreds of glowing reviews?