Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it intends to take legal action against thousands of individuals suspected of writing fake reviews for products on its websites. This was in response to an investigative piece published in The Sunday Times - ‘How to fake a bestseller’ - which revealed the ease in buying fake reviews, some for as little as £3(1).
In the space of a day the credibility of Amazon’s bestsellers lists was called into question. It cost the newspaper’s reporters a meagre £56 to drive an error strewn book to the top of the Gardening and Horticulture bestsellers category on Amazon’s UK kindle store(2). In pursuing legal action, Amazon claims it is the first major retailer to take the positive step of trying to eradicate “false, misleading and inauthentic” reviews that so tarnished its own brand reputation(3).
With plenty of negative headlines circulating the country surrounding online security breaches, fake reviews and counterfeits goods – this case will remind many brands of the threats they themselves face online today.
The source of Amazon’s troubles
The issue of purchasing fake reviews, social media followers and Facebook ‘likes’ is not a new problem for brands. For the average consumer, simply searching for each of the above terms in Google will present you with an array of offers which can be used to create a false representation of a person or product. For example, you can purchase fake reviews for TripAdvisor for just $20 – this has been a concern of many for a number of years.
In Amazon’s case, the source of its fake reviewers is www.Fiverr.com - who themselves are not subject to the court order. It is from this site that individuals offered to write five star reviews for products sold via Amazon's Marketplace platform.
In 2013, a well publicised case of a businessman creating a fake restaurant on TripAdvisor, enticing customers with fake five star reviews, previously illustrated to brands how marketplace sites can be manipulated. Therefore, as of at least two years ago, Amazon ought to have been aware of other brands’ past reputational troubles and, indeed the ease with which one can purchase these malicious services online.
Despite Amazon’s actions being belated, the steps taken will benefit the authenticity of its platforms and, more importantly, deter any bad actors who are intent on selling their services in a similar way. That in turn could benefit other brand holders who have suffered at the hands of these 'reviewers for hire'.
Educating consumers to spot fake reviews
Brands have a responsibility to be the first line of defence for their consumers. According to recent research by Socialnomics expert Erik Qualman, 90% of buyers now trust peer reviews. As the recent Amazon case reinforces, consumers must remain vigilant when trusting online reviews. As a result, brands must begin educating their consumers on how to spot bogus reviews. Coming from a position of expertise and recognition, consumers will listen to the powerful voice of a global brand. Below are a few simple steps that a business can use to position itself as an informed voice on the issue and pass onto its consumers to ensure they do not fall victim to fake reviews:
1. Never use websites that do not offer SSL protection – the little padlock or green browser bar ensures that the organisation has gone through some authentication and validation procedures and that any personal or financial details are secure.
2. Check when the last reviews were published. If there has been a stream of reviews in concentration, and with few written before or after, then alarm bells should be ringing.
3. According to research from Cornell University into fake reviews on TripAdvisor, heavy use of 'I' and 'we' in the reviews is a dead give away that they are fake. In addition, reviews which include lots of adverbs like 'really' and 'very' are warning signs, along with exclamation marks which denote false enthusiasm.
Protecting your brand and fighting the fraudsters
The damage inflicted to a brand by a false-good review can be as damaging as a genuine bad review. To reduce the risks of fake reviews appearing on a marketplace site, brands must proactively monitor their website, so that infringements can be caught early, before any damage is done.
Detection and monitoring of infringements should focus on the most vulnerable areas of the site and should ideally be complemented by an infringement removal or takedown service so that any fake reviews or bogus deals are dealt with swiftly and effectively. The overall aim is for the brand to make itself a hard target for the infringers.
Businesses should be the first line of defence against online fraudsters. The consequences for brands that don’t protect their customers extend beyond a loss in revenue. The damage to a brand’s reputation can be severe if consumers they think they have bought a product, booked a holiday, or reserved a table at a restaurant with a company that turns out to be a scam.