A while back, I came across a message in a Facebook group for entrepreneurs and business owners. Someone was asking members of the group whether they were interested in fake reviews. People felt strongly about this subject, and most responses included something in the line of ‘not done’. The person who posted the message turned out to be involved in a business that was selling fake reviews. Apparently that’s a way to make money. I browsed around his website for a bit and was quite shocked at what I saw.

Would you prefer a 4 or 5-star review?

The site offered positive reviews for Dutch review sites like Opiness or Klantenvertellen and international sites like Trustpilot en Google for only a couple of Euro each. You could even choose between 4 or 5 star reviews (although they were priced the same – I would have expected the 4 star review to be reduced at least a little bit). Buying your reviews in bulk was rewarded with an impressive discount. What bothered me so much about this site, is that I realised there is no way for an honest business owner to compete with this, no matter how much hard work they put in. And that dishonest business owners don’t have to make any effort. But most of all: that consumers will lose their trust in reviews, making genuine reviews left by happy customers basically worthless.  

The Shed At Dulwich

You might remember The Shed At Dulwich, a restaurant that in 2017 made its way to the top of Tripadvisor’s list of  best London restaurants. Everybody wanted to book a table there. The only problem was that the restaurant didn’t exist. The Shed was exactly that: a small shed in the back of the garden at VICE journalist Oobah Butler’s house. Oobah used reviews he had written himself and photos of meals created with paint, cardboard and shaving foam, to create a hype. He wanted to show how easy it was to manipulate ratings. It worked. The story went viral, putting Tripadvisor in an uncomfortable position. 

Investigating online reviews

That same year, the Dutch Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) investigated consumer reviews in the Netherlands. A few conclusions from that investigation:

  • Reviews are getting more and more important in the process of orientation and decision making. 3/4 of consumers use reviews when purchasing products
  • Reviews are mainly consulted when purchasing electronic or household appliances, overnight stays, restaurants and package holidays
  • Consumer reviews are not seen as reliable sources of information. Information found on the seller’s website, in the shop or through experiences of family and friends is regarded more trustworthy than information found in reviews
  • Reviews are seen as someone’s opinion, which can differ from the consumer’s personal opinion. Apart from that, according to consumers the overrepresentation of negative and positive reviews and the lack of neutral reviews are not helping the reliability of said reviews
  • Consumers are very aware that reviews might be manipulated, and they are cautios when using them
  • Consumers find it difficult to determine whether reviews are genuine
  • Around 2/3 of consumers had a more positive experience than they had anticipated based on the reviews they had consulted.
  • Reviews are often not crucial when deciding to choose a product or service. However, reviews are quite often crucial for turning down a product or service. Manipulated reviews can lead to consumers unnecessarily turning down options 
  • Cunsomers are often requested to leave reviews or rewarded for doing so

Reporting fake reviews

According to the investigation, consumers rarely act when they suspect a review is unreliable. In the case of the aforementioned review website I did decide to report it, it was too important to me. Even though I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, I felt I needed to do it. Trustpilot, Opiness and Klantenvertellen all contacted the website and reviews for their platforms are no longer offered. At the time of writing I haven’t received a reply from Google. Earlier this year, ACM published their guidelines ‘Protection of the online consumer’, which includes the statement that online reviews and likes need to be genuine, not made up or manipulated.

Consumer trust

Business owners who use fake reviews might not be aware, but they are undermining their own business as much as they are undermining other businesses. Because without consumer trust, every online business will struggle. Of course it’s difficult if you’re just starting up and don’t have any reviews. I can imagine that buying some positive reviews can be tempting. But my recommendation would be: Don’t. When your customers find out your reviews are fake, you’ll lose all your credibility. Try repairing that. And isn’t it much more satisfying to know your reviews are from your own, genuinely happy, customers?

Would you like to receive genuine reviews? Let me advise you on how to make your customers’ experiences work for you. Contact me for more information.

Update: As of the end of June 2020, the review website is no longer in business. The ACM announced to take action against the trade in fake reviews and fake likes.