Online reviews are increasingly becoming one of the first and most influential indicators consumers look to and consider when forming their opinions of a business’s products or services. Rapidly replacing more traditional consumer research methods, online reviews are now arguably the single biggest determining factor in the purchasing decision process.
A good sales pitch is worthless if you are never given the chance to make it to a customer who has already decided to go elsewhere.
In today’s digital age, 86% of all consumers read reviews for local businesses before deciding who to hire and where to shop or dine, while 91% of the coveted 18 to 34-year-old demographic ultimately trust online reviews at least as much as personal recommendations. For better or worse, online ratings and reviews are more valuable than “word of mouth” these days.
Just as positive online reviews have the potential to catapult you to the top, negative reviews can completely derail your business. Worse yet, because consumers commonly disregard positive reviews as marketing ‘fluff’, finding negative reviews is often the primary aim of their online market research.
Worse still, negative reviews are easily faked by individuals posing as legitimate customers or clients. This is an unfortunately effective tactic which can be all too tempting to your competitors, disgruntled ex-employees, or even someone with a personal grudge completely unrelated to your business.
Identifying whether a negative review or series of reviews is fake or the result of actual consumer experience is a vital question which must be answered before knowing your options for relief. But how can you tell if a negative review is fake?
You can use these useful tips to help identify fake online reviews:
- Compare username and complaints against business records;
- Research the reviewer’s user account and activity;
- Analyze the language of the reviews;
- Examine the timing of the reviews.
Below, we walk through in more detail why fake online reviews pose a serious threat to you and your business, how to identify those reviews, and what can and should be done in response.
Fake Online Reviews: The Problem & Background
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that online reviews are far too easily faked.
No matter whether you sell products or services, you are a local business or a worldwide corporation, or you market yourself on the Internet or through more traditional means, negative online reviews are a threat to everyone.
Such online attacks can be relentless and absolutely devastating to you and your business. You may find yourself faced with a continuous series of fake reviews, published either in short bursts or periodically over time. Or you could be the victim of one very targeted and impactful review. The reviews may contain disparaging commentary, telling fictitious tales of marketplace interaction which never occurred. Or you could be attacked with numerous one-star reviews designed to lower your average star-rating.
The reality of today’s digital landscape is that consumers frequently formulate their first (and sometimes only) opinion of a product or service based on online star-rating, customer reviews, and other brief snippets of easily accessible information provided on a multitude of general review platforms. Popular platforms include Google, Yelp, Amazon, and Facebook. There are also countless other review websites which have a more narrow focus, like TripAdvisor, OpenTable, and Vitals.
As an illustrative example, consider the average Amazon shopper. Online shoppers often research several similar products before making a final purchasing decision. On Amazon, the shoppers can easily compare those products by rating, price, and customer reviews. Those customer reviews can be viewed through several different filters, including by ‘highest rating’ and by ‘lowest rating’. But ask yourself this question – how many times have you filtered a review by ‘highest rating’? Probably never.
That is because before making a decision to purchase, you do not want another sales pitch. You want to know what the sales pitch does not tell you. You want to know what negative experiences people have encountered with that product. You want to read what you believe are the genuine experiences of other purchasers.
Taking this one step further, you probably have read a few positive online reviews and assumed those reviews were in fact fake and uploaded by someone being paid to boost the business. You may very well have been right too. But how many times have you read a negative review of some business you have never dealt with before and thought to yourself that it must be a competitor or someone else who is not really a genuine customer? Not very often, if ever at all.
Point being, while fake negative reviews are difficult enough for a business to spot, the entire prospect of such a review does not even register as a possibility to the average consumer.
There are three key issues that can make dealing with fake online reviews so difficult and complicated.
- The right to anonymity in speech which allows for the use of fictitious Internet usernames;
- Robust legal protections for the online review platforms;
- Easily manipulated rating scales.
1. Allowance of Fictitious Internet Usernames
Most major online platforms do not require that a review be published in the reviewer’s actual name. Users are free to create their accounts through whatever fictitious usernames they desire, even “John Doe” or “Anonymous” or “A Google User” or “Self-Verified Patient.” Registering an account often requires little other than an email address, and that email address can be created for the sole purpose of registering the account.
Some review websites might ask or even require the user to enter personal information (name, address, phone number, etc.) for account creation and registration purposes. The user may also be given the option to publicly display some or all of that information on a profile page. But even in those circumstances, the website will almost never do anything to factually verify the information entered by the user.
Perhaps more troubling, there is no mechanism to effectively prevent users from creating and operating multiple accounts on the same platform. This is despite the fact that doing so is almost always a violation of the website’s Terms of Service.
With no identity verification and how relatively simple the registration process can be, one individual could rather easily create a dozen fake user accounts on Google or Yelp. This could be done in a matter of hours (or less). Those accounts can then be used to:
- Quickly publish a series of fake online reviews;
- All under different usernames;
- Creating the appearance of twelve separate irate customers;
- Without any ‘gatekeeper’ to stop such abuse before the reviews are published on the Internet.
2. Robust Legal Protections For Online Review Platforms
Actually, it is not that there is not a gatekeeper capable of adding some layers of much needed protection for businesses. Rather, it is that the only capable gatekeeper is not very interested in performing that role. Only an extreme minority of websites will delay publication after a review is uploaded to first ensure compliance with their Terms of Service. Normally, the moment a reviewer uploads a review to the website, it goes live on the Internet for all to see.
Furthermore, although maintaining full editorial control over what appears on their platforms, most online review platforms are not very receptive to requests that they exercise that control to remove suspicious reviews. Even when armed with evidence that should raise some red flags and/or establishes a clear case of abuse, it can be an extremely difficult convincing Google, Yelp, or pretty much any other consumer review website to remove reviews published by a third-party user.
What is more, the website is not going to voluntarily give you any information on the identity of the culprit(s), which is often necessary to verify your concerns. Generally, you will not be provided with any clues beyond the publicly viewable user account information.
If your initial reaction is to sue the website directly, you would be wrong. Consumer review websites are generally protected under The Communications Decency Act (CDA), a federally enacted Internet law. But for a few very narrow exceptions, Section 230 of the CDA provides consumer review websites with an absolute shield of immunity.
Typically, only if a review blatantly violates the applicable Terms of Service will you have a legitimate chance at the website removing it upon request. For example, if you are a doctor and the review is posted by a neighbor about your dog that never stops barking, the website should and probably will remove that review. But if the neighbor pretends to be a patient named “Bob Smith,” telling tales of treatment he never received, good luck convincing the website to comply. This is true even if you have no records of a “Bob Smith” as a patient or you present other out of court evidence suggesting the review was posted by your neighbor.
The bottom line is that the website is not likely to play ‘referee’ on any review which purports to reflect an actual marketplace interaction. Instead, the website will direct you to the legal process to hash it out.
Keep in mind that online review websites are routinely bombarded with removal requests and the flagging of reviews for abuse. Actively and effectively policing their respective platforms would require a significant investment in manpower. Since there is virtually no exposure to legal liability, the juice is simply not worth the squeeze to those websites.
Most commonly, a court order directed at the user who published the review is required for an online review website to seriously consider your removal request. But even with such a court order, the website is not required to do the removal itself due to the protections it is afforded by The Communications Decency Act.
3. Easily Manipulated Rating Scales
Most online review websites and platforms base their ratings on a one- to five-star rating scale. A one-star rating is usually the lowest possible rating while five-star is the highest. Businesses obviously seek out an unblemished five-star rating, or something close to it on average. They often actively solicit positive reviews to boost their star ratings. This is because there is potential for a huge hit to your business should that average star rating drop even in the slightest.
According to a 2012 study conducted by two prominent U.C. Berkeley professors and economists, “an extra half-star rating (on Yelp) causes restaurants to sell out 19 percentage points (49%) more frequently.” The study was validated by combining the Yelp reviews of over 320 San Francisco restaurants and comparing them against their real-time reservation availability during dinner-rush hours.
To illustrate how much just a few negative reviews can affect your business, consider the following. Two restaurants, one with a 3.76 star rating and one with a 3.74 star rating, are rated very differently on Yelp. The 3.76 star rating is rounded up to a 4.0 star rating, while the 3.74 rating is rounded down to a 3.5 star rating. Consequently, a “mere” .02 point drop in a Yelp average star rating can have a potentially catastrophic effect on a restaurant’s ability to fill seats.
Certainly, one tactic competitors and others utilize to negatively impact your business is to manipulate your average star rating. They know if your average star rating is low enough, most consumers will not even bother to read the actual reviews or conduct any other research. They will simply move on and shop elsewhere.
Minc Law Legal Fact: When it comes to online reviews, genuine opinions are absolutely protected. Even Ford can share with the general public an opinion on the products and services offered by Chevy. But Ford must do so in its capacity as a competitor. They also must be truthful in the process. The right to free and anonymous speech does not give Ford the freedom to create 1,000 fictitious online personas, all claiming to be Chevy owners, to publish negative reviews about Chevy. Such tactics would be misleading, and give rise to false advertising and/or deceptive trade practices claims.
How to Identify Fake Online Reviews
Consult Your Business Records
Maintaining detailed business and administrative records is not only useful for compliance with internal and external regulations. When a suspicious online review is discovered, the first places you should look are:
- Databases of customer names,
- Transaction history, and
- Complaint files.
Does the username match or closely resemble the name of any legitimate customer? Did any transaction even remotely close to the one described by the reviewer actually occur? Does the negative experience relayed in the review reflect that of any customer complaint you have on file?
Negative reviews can sometimes be resolved with carefully handled customer service. Reaching out to a legitimate customer to resolve the issue through a non-legal channel is normally the most effective way to remedy a negative review. This is true no matter whether the complaint is warranted or not. But before contacting the customer directly, you need to thoroughly assess whether doing so will actually cause greater damage.
Most importantly, should you decide to contact the customer, the tone of your approach is crucial. Give it some thought. The customer is already upset. ‘Poking the bear’ in that circumstance through threats of legal action or threatening to ‘get the lawyers involved’ is probably not a smart play.
Another consideration is the means by which you contact the customer to respond to the review. Many businesses prefer to respond directly and publicly to the review, on the same platform. This is so that prospective and current customers can see a willingness and eagerness on the part of the business to rectify the situation. But that is not always a viable option. For example, because medical and legal professionals are held to strict standards of confidentiality, and must tread carefully when responding to public comments online, Yelp recommends contacting the reviewer privately to address the substance of the reviews.
For businesses and professionals without any confidentiality concerns, directly responding to the review and offering to rectify the situation is probably what a marketing professional would recommend. Whether you take that tact or not, we still recommend establishing a separate line of communication away from the platform to hold a more open, honest, and meaningful dialogue towards resolution.
However, should you not be able to match the review to an actual customer after reviewing all available records, suspicions that the review is fake may very well be warranted.
Research the User Account From Which the Review Was Published
When analyzing a user account, keep an eye out for the following two features:
- Accounts which are newly created and/or have minimal or no activity outside of the review of your business; and/or
- Usernames which are sarcastic or satirical.
Fake online reviews are often published through user accounts created on the same day as, and for the sole purpose of, a fake review. Typically, the fake review in question will be the only contribution the user account has made to the online review platform.
To discern as much information as possible, click on the user account’s profile. This is normally embedded within the username. From there, you will generally be able to see how many contributions that user has made to the platform.
If the only contribution is a negative review of your business, this tends to be a red-flag. While it does not mean the review is definitively fake, the posting of a single, negative review from a newly created account is certainly a common modus operandi (M.O.) employed by those who weaponize online reviews.
Another investigative tool, especially when faced with a series of negative reviews, is to examine what other businesses the user accounts have reviews. If the same user accounts have all been used to publish reviews (positive or negative) of another single business or product, alarm bells should be sounding off.
Suspicious Account Username
Sometimes a reviewer will post under a sarcastic username or moniker. For example, the designation of usernames such as “Jack Kanoff,” “Ben Dover,” “Seymore Butts,” and other names with a comical play on words seems to be a temptation fake online reviewers have trouble resisting.
Sarcastic and questionable usernames may also be accompanied by a “humorous image” or stock photo. Conducting a reverse image search on Google is an effective way to identify the source from where a profile’s picture or avatar was copied. To conduct a reverse image search on Google:
- Upload a picture to Google Images;
- Drag and drop a picture in Google Images; or
- Search Google Images with a URL.
Look at the Timing of the Reviews
Fake online reviews can be a one-off instance, come in waves, or be spread out periodically. The timing of fake online reviews can vary greatly, so there is no one-size-fits-all model. But when you get into the realm of multiple reviews, there is usually some semblance of a pattern than can be deduced.
If you have a fairly steady five-star rating and all of sudden start receiving a spat of one-star reviews, it would be cause for concern. If a negative review is published in any regular interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.), that would also be worthy of suspicion. And if the reviews are published during the hours of the day when the bulk of your customers would normally be sleeping, such timing should rightfully give you some serious misgivings.
Analyze the Language of the Reviews
Ask yourself the following questions. What is the intent of the review in question? Does the review accurately and sufficiently describe your services or products? Does it directly or indirectly promote the products or services of a competitor?
Fake negative online reviews have a tendency to:
- Not accurately describe your services or products with sufficient detail other than general statements of dissatisfaction;
- Directly or indirectly promote a competitor;
- Contain inflammatory rhetoric; and/or
- Utilize improper grammar.
Professional Review “Hit-Job”
Sometimes fake online reviews are perpetrated by a professional review “hitman” or agency, hired by a competitor. These hit-jobs are often outsourced to people and agencies outside of the United States. One obvious indicator is that the reviews are often vague and may be written in broken English with grammatical errors (not merely typos).
Because these professional review agencies and “hitmen” frequently are located abroad, it can be extremely difficult to identify and hold them accountable. If it appears you are the victim of a professional review hit-job, we recommend reaching out to an experienced Internet defamation attorney to explore your options before the damage is irreparable.
When it comes to spotting fake online reviews, the bottom line is that there is no clear blueprint or roadmap to definitively identify them. They come in various forms and patterns. But trust your gut.
Businesses and professionals who pay careful attention to their online presence and reviews will often have a very good sense of what is and is not true. If there is any cause for concern in either form, substance, or timing of the review, there likely is legitimate cause for suspicion.
What Can & Should Be Done About Fake Online Reviews
Once you have identified a review as fake, or have legitimate suspicion that it is fake, knowing how to remove it is crucial. Again, the website is not likely to help. The best practice, whether from a legal or business perspective, is always to act quickly.
Preserve, Preserve, Preserve
Always preserve the review in question as an initial step. While more sophisticated preservation software is available, taking a screen-shot or using a snipping tool (or even CTRL+PrtScr) are free and effective ways to preserve vital evidence you may need down the road. We recommend preserving the following evidence:
- The review itself (of course);
- The URL where the review is located;
- Any user account or profile page;
- Where the review or review page appears in your internet search results;
- Your current average star or point rating with the review.
Fake online reviews can be extremely damaging to your business and litigation may be necessary to:
- Identify the anonymous reviewer;
- Preclude the continuous publication of fake reviews by that individual; and
- Compensate you for your losses.
In that circumstance, contacting an experienced Internet defamation removal attorney is essential.
At Minc Law, we utilize professional preservation software tools, such as Page Vault and Visualping, to document online defamation and malicious internet attacks. Both Page Vault and Visualping ensure a proper evidentiary foundation and “chain of custody” can be established. This is critical in the digital age where any named defendant can simply delete the review and spoliate the evidence.
Flag & Report the Review
Flagging fake online reviews is one of the first steps you should take towards having a platform remove a review. Think of flagging a review as a nudge to the platform where it is posted that something is amiss.
For example, to flag fake Google reviews, simply:
- Head over to your Google My Business page or search your business in Google Maps;
- Locate the questionable review;
- Click the grey flag or three dots to the right of the review;
- Classify its violation type (advertising, spam, hateful, inappropriate, off-topic, conflict of interest);
- Provide your email address; and
Do not simply flag a review because you disagree with its content. This can aggravate the situation if you are dealing with a legitimate dissatisfied customer. Instead, try to approach that customer directly to resolve the issue or concern.
While flagging a suspicious review is a fairly easy process, it is usually ineffective. This is especially so even in the case of a fake review for the reasons stated above. Some platforms offer an option to escalate a dispute if your report is initially rejected. But when escalating a report of abuse or other violation of the Terms of Service, it is important that you carefully and properly present your argument.
You usually only have one shot at it, and once a decision is made it is final. At Minc Law, we strongly recommend against going at this alone. An experienced Internet defamation attorney can help you properly explain:
- What evidence supports the suspicion that the review in question is fake; and/or
- How it violates the platform’s policies and review guidelines.
But if all non-litigation efforts are rejected, it is time to consider a lawsuit against the author of the review.
Unmask the Anonymous Reviewer
If the fake reviews in question are highly damaging or ongoing, you may need to unmask (identify) and sue the person responsible. Filing a John Doe lawsuit is normally an available option when a reviewer’s identity is unknown. John Doe lawsuits enable you to file your lawsuit against an unnamed defendant, and then unmask the reviewer’s identity through the discovery process.
Many complex legal considerations attach to John Doe lawsuits, such as the best jurisdiction in which to file the lawsuit for both the discovery process and ultimate relief. We strongly recommend reaching out to an experienced Internet attorney to assist.
Search & Monitor Similar Online Platforms
Just because you have found and successfully identified a fake review on one website does not mean you should conclude your investigation. Look for similarly suspicious activity on other platforms.
Make sure to conduct a thorough Google search of you or your business’s name. This means going several pages back in the search results using specific keywords that may be used in a suspicious review. Several common specific keywords to include in your search are “scam,” “cheater,” “fraud,” “ripoff,” and “liar.”
We also recommend setting up a free Google Alerts account to monitor your online presence. For example, Google Alerts, enables you to “create alerts” and receive notifications anytime you, your business, or inputted keywords are mentioned anywhere in Google Search. Or you may want to consider engaging with a more sophisticated Internet monitoring service, such as ZeroFox.
Document Evidence of Damages
A key element to any defamation claim is proving that you, the plaintiff, suffered damages as a result of the false statement(s) in question. To succeed in your defamation claim, it is very important that you document all evidence of the damages incurred by you or your business. If you cannot prove that you were harmed by the false review(s), then your available remedies in a court of law will be quite limited. Sometimes those remedies may be outright precluded.
Evidence of damages you should carefully document can include:
- Drop or slowdown of growth in revenue;
- Loss of specific clients or customers or volume of clients or customers;
- Severance of a business partnership or advertising;
- Negative press; and/or
- Evidence of people seeing the reviews.
While damages may be presumed in specific situations, defamation plaintiffs generally need to prove that some sort of actual and specific harm occurred outside of hurt feelings and mental anguish. This is especially important should you choose to go the litigation route.