Some 40% of shoppers regularly check online reviews to evaluate whether they should buy a product, according to Pew Research. Unfortunately, a lot of online reviews may be fake or paid for. It is estimated that more than 30% of reviews that appear on Amazon are unreliable, for example, says Saoud Khalifah, CEO of online customer review analyzer Fakespot.
While every retailer contends with fake reviews, nearly all Amazon purchases happen online, making shoppers heavily dependent on reviews to evaluate a product. The typical Amazon Prime member spends $1,400 per year on the site, while non-Prime members spend $600 on average, according to a representative at Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.
To keep what it calls "abusive reviews" from being published, Amazon analyzes all reviews with "powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators," says an Amazon spokesperson. Still, to avoid wasting money on low quality products, it's important to be a vigilant consumer when reading reviews.
Take every rating with a grain of salt, says Ganda Suthivarakom, special projects editor at product review site Wirecutter. "Sometimes they are written in earnest, and sometimes they are not."
Here are some tips for spotting fake reviews, and why they are so common.
- Run the URL through a review analyzer: As suspect reviews have proliferated, so have companies that are dedicated to exposing them. Fakespot and ReviewMeta are both sites that analyze product pages and identify which reviews are inauthentic. By plugging the product URL into Fakespot and ReviewMeta, you can find out how many reviews seem untrustworthy. These sites scan the language used in the review, the reviewers' profiles, and the congruence of the reviews with each other to decipher whether they see real.
- Don't rely solely on stars. Amazon's star ratings are not an average of all the ratings a product gets. The site weights some ratings heavier than others based on factors like whether a reviewer is verified or how new a review is. Instead of letting star reviews alone guide you, read through written comments to get a better sense of what people have to say.
- Watch out for marketing lingo. "Most people don't talk or write like a slogan or marketing terms you'd find on a box, so think critically when reading reviews," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. If a review seems stiff or professionally written, it might be fake. Khalifah agrees that you should look at the "sentiment" of reviews. If someone describes a company as "the best ever," or their customer service experience as "the best ever," it might be fake. "Normal reviewers don't write that way," he says.
- Sort reviews by newest to oldest. "It's hard for a company to continually get fake reviews over time," says Tommy Noonan, CEO of ReviewMeta. This is why checking the most recent reviews is a better way to get feedback on a product. Some companies also do a "bait and switch" he says, meaning they switch to a lower quality product without changing the listing. So, while older reviewers got one item, new reviewers are getting another, usually worse, product. Sorting reviews chronologically can also reveal how many reviews were left per day. "If you see a significant portion of reviews in the same time frame, like during the last month they were receiving a hundred reviews per day, that's a big telltale sign" that the reviews are fake, Khalifah says.
- Look at the reviewer's history. Click into a reviewer's profile and see what types of products they are reviewing and how frequently they leave reviews. "Has the reviewer reviewed a lot of different stuff over time and given different ratings, or are they giving everything five stars and have done hundreds of reviews?" Noonan asks. For example, if one person has reviewed 25 screen protectors, they may be getting paid to review them.
Amazon carries more than 100 million product listings in the United States, according to data company ScrapeHero. And with this surplus of options, it's becoming harder for companies who want to sell on Amazon to gain visibility.
Although Amazon does not allow paid-for or incentivized reviews, the retail giant does favor frequently reviewed products by pushing them higher on the search page, creating a sort of "chicken and egg effect," Suthivarakom says. "You need a review of a product to rise in search on Amazon, but you can't get a review unless someone buys your product."
That's why some companies are enticed to find loopholes to encourage more people to review their products. This includes purchasing reviews on third-party websites and asking employees to leave positive reviews. (A review is just one of many factors, including how frequently a product is bought, its availability and price, that affects how prominently a product is listed, Amazon told Grow in a statement.)
Some review-buying cases are high profile. For example, last year the Federal Trade Commission sued weight-loss supplement company Cure Encapsulations for $12.8 million for buying fake Amazon reviews from the website Amazon Verified Reviews. Cure Encapsulations was required to pay $50,000 in the settlement.
The FTC also sued skin care company Sunday Riley for ordering its employees to boost sales by writing fake reviews on other sites like Sephora, and disliking or down-voting negative ones. Sunday Riley settled, and while the company did not have to admit to any wrongdoing, they were required to say they would never write fake reviews for their products in the future.
The purchase or incentivization of reviews also happens on a smaller scale. Although Facebook has said it is cracking down on the sale of reviews, some companies still start Facebook groups and offer members free merchandise or gift cards to review their products positively. And sometimes customers who write bad reviews are solicited by the company to change them. There is now a cottage industry of for-sale reviews, Suthivarakom says.
In 2019, Noonan told The Hustle that of the 203 million Amazon reviews ReviewMeta analyzed, 11.3% were untrustworthy. Some kinds of products attract more questionable reviews than others. For example, last year 49% of headphone reviews were deemed untrustworthy by ReviewMeta, along with 37% of cellphone accessories.
Small electronics are the types of products that often have fake reviews, explains Fakespot's Khalifah, including "Bluetooth headphones, hard drives, things that are unbranded that you can buy in bulk."
Beauty products are another category with a high rate of fake reviews, Khalifah says. Third-party sellers will claim to have a brand name item, and then buy positive reviews for their fake products. "A lot of these people are selling counterfeits with really bad ingredients, and they are pumping those products with fake reviews," he says.
In a statement, Amazon says sites like Fakespot and ReviewMeta "cannot concretely determine the authenticity of a review." The company points out that both "have business models that are inherently biased towards instilling distrust in reviews on Amazon's and other companies' stores."
Fakespot and ReviewMeta say they stand behind their services. "Fakespot holds a strong belief in reviews that are trustworthy and authentic for our users and consumers overall," Khalifah says.
It's important to analyze all reviews you read on any platform. You can also use third-party review publications such as Wirecutter on Consumer Reports to assess the quality of products.
Checking your facts in different places never hurts, Suthivarakom says.
"Look up multiple sources," she says. "I think that in this era in which a lot of things are confusing, it's important to check other sources just to make sure what [information] you're seeing on the product page you're buying from is the same as what is being said on other sites."
If you do happen to buy a counterfeit product or a product whose reviews do not align with what you received, the best thing to do is send it back, Noonan says. "Even if it's a cheap product, that will send a financial message to Amazon and the seller that you won't put up with this tomfoolery."
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