Tuesday 9 March 2021

UK Businesses are still buying fake Google reviews


Here's the full article

Our first reaction? It's so frustrating that it's still going on. We could give the CMA, the responsible regulator, a 'hit list' to be getting on with (we are in communication with them currently, as it happens). We blogged about this very issue for the first time in October 2015 - that's nearly six years ago.

'Not us', we hear echoing around the offices of UK Plc. But then which businesses are buying reviews? The answer, according to Which? ranges from a stockbroker in Canary Wharf to a car hire company in Surrey to a locksmith in Cambridge, as well as firms of solicitors and dentists.

In other words, it's endemic, and with the kinds of businesses where a single paid-for review could mislead a consumer into making the wrong - and potentially life-changing decision. 

Why is this a 'bad thing'?

Reviews are, these days, relied on by consumers - very heavily. Especially when buying high-value items and especially the kinds of services that can be very expensive indeed, and compounded if the consumer has been influenced, illegally, to use the wrong business. Harley street oncologist, anyone? Estate agent, with £tens of thousands of fees and ultimate proceeds at stake?

It is also against the law.

It is also, as Which? points out, manifestly unfair on businesses that obey the law.

How can Which? and anyone else, tell a review is fake or even bought?

This is a trick of our trade, but we're going to disclose it here for the greater common good: first, find the business you suspect of buying fake reviews. That's not as difficult as it may first seem, especially when it is your day-to-day job; you get a nose for them, the English is 'off' (if you visit the website shown above you will see what we mean by that!). Or the pattern is questionable (in the case of the stockbroker mentioned above, it had received a steady stream of critical reviews over many months and then a sudden surge of 5* reviews). Or every single review mentions the name of a member of staff: 'Jackie was wonderful...' Peter was wonderful'. There are many more indicators, but we expect you get our drift.

Once you have the business in your sights it is then a matter of cross-referencing the reviews posted by the individual reviewer. Google, uniquely, provides a map of the individual reviews posted by each and every reviewer; this enables anyone to check the geography of that reviewer's reviews. Some questionable reviews are posted by some very well-travelled people that also use an extraordinarily wide range of businesses!

Is this confined to Google reviews?

Absolutely not! Here's reviewr.co.uk's list (and it's only their 'Top Services')...

Here's their shopping cart, just to round out the picture...

The 'How much review you want' probably gives you a fairly good indication of the kind of reviews you will be buying! But if the business urgently needs fifty reviews to get its Google score or Trustpilot rating up, do they really care that much? If the Which survey and our experience is anything to go by, not that much!

How about the review sites themselves?

Our opinion, backed up by many years of hands-on experience, is that the review sites have all but abdicated their responsibility for ensuring that reviews are the genuine opinions of real customers. In many cases, their [potential] stock market value is directly linked to the number of reviews - and therefore valuable data - they host and hold, so there is a financial disincentive to moderate reviews. A look at the reviews they all host of their competitors is also enlightening, as is a check of the reviews posted by their employees on sites such as Glassdoor.

Google, by dint of the fact that one needs a Google account linked to every other activity one performs on Google, including one's search history, is probably the most reliable in terms of the least number of fake reviews (also partly because it doesn't directly rely on reviews to boost its earnings). This is a good thing because it is also the most visible and the most influential.

What should the regulators be doing?

Fake and bought reviews are only the tip of a very large malpractice iceberg when it comes to reviews. They are manipulated, both by businesses and the sites that host them, in many other ways, all to the detriment of consumers as well as honest businesses.

It is essential that these practices are stamped out as quickly as possible, otherwise many millions of consumers will continue to be misled and many honest businesses will continue to lose out to their less honest competitors.

We have asked to meet the regulators and will be opening our extensive archive for them to examine. We will report back here in due course.

Further reading...

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