Double Check: Can you trust online reviews?

By: alice franklin&
May 13 2022

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Double Check: Can you trust online reviews?

In my younger and more carefree years, I bought a smartwatch from a very famous online retailer whose name is reminiscent of a large rainforest. The Amazon product arrived a mere day later, in the customary comically oversized box.

At first, it was not clear the smartwatch was a dud. It counted what I presumed to be my steps and the battery kept its charge well enough. It was only when it broke — a mere two weeks into what was supposed to be my life-changing fitness regimen — that I realized I had purchased a turd.

But how could this be? I asked myself as I paced around my room, my every step now going uncounted. The reviews had been unanimously good and extraordinarily numerous. Was the craftsman having an off-day when he handmade my watch? Were all the other smartwatches he sold of superior quality? What had actually happened?

As luck would have it, the answer came to me when taking out the recycling and a slip that had previously been tucked into the plentiful packaging fell to the floor. "LEAVE A FIVE-STAR REVIEW," the slip shouted at me, "AND WE WILL GIVE YOU A £10 VOUCHER."

I fell to my knees and wept. I had been fooled. I had been had. 

Fake reviews for sale

It is hard to accurately state how big the internet's fake review problem is, but the chances are it's very large indeed. Last year, the World Economic Forum estimated “the direct influence of fake online reviews on global online spending is $152 billion,” finding that 4 percent of the reviews online were fake. A 2020 report from Fakespot — a data analytics company — put the figure much higher, finding that around 30 percent of reviews it analyzed were somehow fake. 

I say “somehow” because, of course, the degree of fakery varies. Some reviews are just straight-up disinformation. This is especially true when brands pay people or use bots to write positive reviews for their own products or write negative reviews for their competitors' products. Lamentably, these kinds of fake reviews are commonplace.

There is also the phenomenon known as "brushing" — a scam that happens primarily on Amazon and involves third-party vendors sending people products they did not buy — something that can lead to consumers receiving mountains of goods they neither want nor asked for.

Needless to say, brushing violates Amazon’s terms of service. Also needless to say, it happens anyway.

According to consumer advice outlet Which?, "brushing" is designed to mislead people into choosing products that aren't as good as they seem. While the practice is undoubtedly odd, products that have been “brushed” can be registered as genuine purchases — something that pushes products up the search rankings. “Some of these sellers even create fake accounts for the people they send items to, and leave five-star reviews,” the i has reported.

Needless to say, brushing violates Amazon’s terms of service. Also needless to say, it happens anyway.

Another banned Amazon practice is something called “incentivization.” This is what seemed to have happened with my smartwatch: genuine purchasers are encouraged to leave a review with the promise of a voucher or a discount. This pushes the consumer to indeed write a review and, thanks to the promise of the voucher or a discount, this review may well be imbued with positivity and emblazoned with five stars. 

An area that strays into more nebulous terrority is the self-selection that comes with being a genuine reviewer. Most people don't write reviews for every product they *interact* with. Indeed, according to a 2014 study, only 1.5 percent of online customers write reviews. These reviewers may write more critically. As communications professor at the University of Southern California Ulrike Gretzel told the New York Times, frequent reviewers may “write more critically to appear more professional.”

Despite all this, most people look at reviews before proceeding with a purchase. According to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of U.S. adults say they “at least sometimes read online customer ratings or reviews before purchasing items for the first time.” When it comes to walking down our virtual high street and faced with the infinite scroll of consumer choice stretching out before us, what else are we supposed to do?

How to spot fake reviews 

There are a variety of ways to detect fake reviews. Which? advises that people ignore the 5-star and 1-star reviews as these are the most likely to be fake — and imbibe the nuance that abounds in two- three- and four- reviews. If you can be bothered, you can also look at the star-rating distribution for a product; an unknown brand having lots of five-star reviews and none or next-to-none one-star reviews is weird.

After this, and if you can still be bothered, you can click on a reviewer's profile to check that they've written a number of genuine-looking reviews over a period of time. If the reviewer has just reviewed only the product in question — using language that emulates a company's branding copy or product description — then this is a bad sign.

screenshot of a potentially fake five star amazon review

This review uses the same words and phrases as other reviews for the same product. This is suspicious, as is the fact it was published on a high-volume review day.

screenshot of a potentially fake four star amazon review
Who loves the way a fitness tracker charges? This review might be fake.

screenshot of a potentially fake five star amazon review

This “honest review” was incentivized.

In the U.K., new proposed rules state that "websites hosting consumer reviews will have to take reasonable steps to check they are genuine." Fake reviews have been lawfully dubious for a while though. Back in 2016, the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority “took action against an online marketing company that posted fake reviews on behalf of its clients.” The new proposed rules would give the Competitions and Markets Authority more power to
“enforce consumer law,” including the power to issue fines. 

But the new proposed rules are still in draft form. They may not come into effect for ages, and when they do, the rules would only apply to the U.K. anyway. In the meantime, bots around the world are publishing fake reviews (sometimes even for fake, knock-off products), and I go on my daily walks. My new smartwatch — bought from a retailer whose name is not reminiscent of a rainforest at all — counts what I presume to be my steps. As far as I can tell, it works just fine. This week, I am averaging 13.5k steps a day. Next week, it may well be more.

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before