Fake online reviews are rife. What can retailers do?

Online reviews. We all read them, most of us have written them, and they significantly shape our purchase decisions.

But there’s one big problem – almost 40% of them are complete rubbish. Remember the Shed at Dulwich, TripAdvisor’s #1 restaurant that didn’t actually exist? Or the recent scandal where Sunday Riley was exposed for asking employees to write fake positive reviews, and even told them how to use a VPN to get away with it?

Whether it’s fake positive reviews posted or paid for by the manufacturer, or scathing negative reviews by an angry customer, competitor or a spurned ex-employee, misleading online reviews are difficult to police. Positive reviews trick customers into trusting undeserving products, and fake negative reviews unfairly tarnish the reputation of great products and businesses.

Every year, big retailers and platforms like Amazon, Walmart and eBay pour significant resources into fighting fake reviews, but it seems like they’re fighting an uphill battle. While AI algorithms are constantly evolving to detect and remove fake reviews, other bots and ‘spinners’ are getting better at generating ever-more sophisticated fake reviews.

It’s a disinformation pandemic. But what can retailers do to help fight the good fight?

Returned item = Flagged review

To combat fake reviews, most retailers these days only allow genuine buyers to review the product. Sounds robust enough, right? Not so fast. A quick Google search reveals plenty of forums dedicated to linking sneaky sellers with disingenuous buyers who will buy the product, write a review for it, then return it straight away. What happens to the review? It stays up. That’s just ridiculous, and it’s been going on since forever. We even called Amazon and eBay to ask if they have plans to address this in the future, and we were told no such plans exist.

In our opinion, when a buyer returns their item, their review should be flagged as ‘Item was returned’. So if an item has a glowing review but is flagged as returned, you know the review is quite likely bogus.

Respond, don’t delete (mainly)

As a seller, negative reviews can be a great opportunity to show your brand has real, rational people behind it. Potential customers can usually tell fairly easily when the writer of the negative review is out of line, and will dismiss them as a crackpot. In such cases, just respond politely and openly, address their concerns and move on. If their less-than-ideal feedback is justified, take it as a chance to learn and improve. 

Only reward good reviewers after they’ve reviewed

Despite most major review sites having strict guidelines in place that explicitly prohibit business owners from offering incentives for reviews, the practise is rife. However, there’s nothing stopping businesses from contacting a reviewer after they’ve posted a positive review and saying thank you with a discount or a freebie. That’s one way to turn a happy customer into a fully-fledged brand evangelist.

Considering just how valuable online reviews can be to both customers and retailers, we’re hopeful that something can be done to stem the tide of fake reviews and allow the truth to prevail. Because in our era of fake news and alternative facts, what your mum always said has never been truer: honesty is the best policy.

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