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How to Know If Online Reviews from Yelp and Amazon are Real or Fake

Updated on August 10, 2020

A few years ago, I had such a terrible experience at a coffee shop that as soon as I got home, I opened up my laptop to write a blistering Yelp review. I expected to find a bunch of other negative reviews and was astounded that the business had dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews. There were a few negative reviewers mixed in including one who questioned how it was possible this particular business could have so many positive reviews. To this day, I wonder if I was one of a very unlucky few who had a bad experience or if perhaps this coffee shop had found a way to generate undeserved glowing reviews.

Many consumers look to online reviews to avoid buying inferior products or getting scammed
Many consumers look to online reviews to avoid buying inferior products or getting scammed

My walking in the door and immediately going to my computer to write up an angry review also indicates another big problem with online reviews. If my experience had been good or even great, would I have written a review the moment I got home? Or at all? People who have bad experiences are more likely to leave reviews than people who have good experiences.

Between people being incentivized to give good reviews and people who have bad experiences writing reviews at higher rates, Yelp isn't as useful as it could be. We shouldn't assume a business is doing a good job because of high ratings or poorly because of low ratings. It isn't that simple. For example, I checked the reviews of businesses I frequent on Yelp and noticed that many get few reviews. If a quick service restaurant has been operating for years, but only has ten reviews, does it mean much if they have a 3-star rating? Probably not. That business is serving dozens of customers each day. Five or six complaints over a period of years doesn't tell us a whole lot about the experience we might have. As consumers, we have to think critically about reviews and ratings, and what they really mean.

"...of the 47,846 total reviews for the first 10 products listed in an Amazon search for “bluetooth speakers,” two-thirds were problematic, based on calculations using the ReviewMeta tool. So were more than half of the 32,435 reviews for the top 10 Bluetooth headphones listed."

-- Washington Post: How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews

Reviews of some businesses I frequent surprised me because my own experiences were so radically different from those of negative reviewers. I've been going to the same dentist for years, and one of the main things I've liked about him is that he doesn't recommend work I don't need. A couple of times, he's told me I may need to get something done but there's no hurry. For a couple of years, he's been telling me that I need to have a crown replaced, but every time I go for a cleaning and checkup, he tells me he's watching it, but that it's fine for now. Yet, on Yelp, some negative reviewers complained about this dentist recommending work they didn't need based a second opinion. Why would my experience be the direct opposite of what these reviewers claimed to experience? Is my dentist being honest and upfront with some people while scamming others? Were these cases of two dentists having different standards relating to when certain procedures are necessary? Is it possible that these reviews are being planted by rivals? Obviously, I have no way of knowing, but fake negative reviews are very common.

Many consumers check out one-star reviews first because they assume they're more likely to be honest. But fake negative reviews are also a huge problem.

About half of all sales on amazon.com come from third-party sellers. These are small businesses who use the Amazon platform to sell their own products. They can ship their products directly to Amazon warehouses to take advantage of Prime shipping. Many sellers complain about rivals leaving fake negative reviews of their products. After all, multiple sellers are offering similar products. If Seller A can make Seller B's product look bad to consumers, that's less competition for them.

Another problem on Amazon is fake reviews making substandard products look good. Some sellers connect with potential reviewers over Facebook and similar platforms. These 'reviewers' buy the product on Amazon, and are then reimbursed by the seller in exchange for a positive review. This becomes a Verified purchase, proof from Amazon that the reviewer really did buy the product.

In Her Amazon Purchases Are Real. The Reviews Are Fake, Nicole Nguyen from Buzzfeed News explains in depth how this works.

"Earlier this year, one woman stumbled into a side hustle that’s resulted in hundreds of free Amazon products, worth tens of thousands of dollars...Although the loot may be free to her, Jessica’s habit does come with a cost — if you’ve considered buying an Instant Pot recently, her 5-star review, complete with photos and a video, might have nudged you toward a knockoff instead of the real thing."

Someone could turn fake Amazon reviews into a side business by getting free stuff from sellers and then listing those items for sale on websites like eBay.

This isn't the only way Amazon third-party sellers get positive reviews. Some place inserts into product packaging offering an Amazon gift card or another item in exchange for a positive review. Between fake positive reviews, and fake negative reviews, it's hard for consumers to know what to believe. Ideally, everyone should review every item they receive to drown out these false positives and false negatives, but that isn't realistic.

Are you concerned about fake online reviews?

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Honest Reviewers Can Get Caught in Fake Review Crackdowns

Leaving reviews is the right thing to do. It means the world to small businesses, indie musicians and authors, and low budget filmmakers when people review their services, products or work. Positive reviews create more interest and can generate sales for small businesses and content creators. Negatives reviews are important to consumers, to steer them clear of inferior products or scams. People who try to do the right thing are understandably frustrated when the reviews they put time into writing are mistakenly flagged as fake. Companies like Amazon face ire for being flooded with fake reviews, but also when they try to do something about it.

Social media is often used to bring sellers and fake reviewers together. And social media may be evidence that a seller and a reviewer know each other. So Amazon decided to use social media as a means to weed out fake reviews by deleting reviews when a connection was found. This led to howls of protest from innocent authors who got caught in the crossfire when positive reviews of their books were removed. Fans often follow the content creators they enjoy on social media. Many of these fans were angry that they put a considerable amount of time into reviewing a book only to have Amazon delete the review because they were following the author. Figuring out which reviews are legit and which aren't isn't always easy.

And according to Nicole Nguyen from Buzzfeed, "Amazon has banned giving away free products in exchange for reviews." This probably does more harm than good. As long as someone acknowledges that they received a product for free in exchange for an honest review, there is absolutely no harm in doing this. Anyone who frequents Goodreads (owned by Amazon) will be familiar with reviews that begin with, "I received an ARC (Advance Review Copy) of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review." And many of these reviewers do write negative or lukewarm reviews. If anything, the more Amazon takes away honest ways to get reviews, the more they force their sellers to use questionable methods.

How to Spot Fake Reviews

The most helpful article I've found on this topic is How to Spot Fake Reviews on Amazon, Yelp, and Other Sites by Justin Pot on howtogeek.com. He provides a list of what to look for when trying to determine how many reviews for a product or business are legitimate.

reviewmeta.com is an easy to use tool that analyzes reviews to determine what percentage are fake. Enter the URL of a product you're interested in and hit Run Report. This site looks for both fake positives and fake negatives. If a lot of positive reviews are determined to be fake, look elsewhere. I ran a report on a treadmill. The report determined that 8% were probably fake. That included a one-star unverified review from someone who had left a total of one review on Amazon overall.

Consumers should always use caution, especially when making expensive purchases, or when choosing new service providers. But consumers also need to use both caution and common sense when turning to online reviews as part of their decision-making process. Use tools like reviewmeta.com and lists like the one in Justin Pot's article. But also take into account how many reviews there are compared to how many customers are being served, and keep in mind that unhappy customers are much more likely to write reviews.

A 2013 study by Harvard Business School determined that 20 percent of reviews on Yelp were fake

How to Spot Fake Amazon Reviews

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Cece

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