Last week, Amazon filed a lawsuit against more than one thousand individuals it alleges published fake ratings and reviews on its site. Who are these spurious reviewers? And how have they gotten away with posting phony content for so long? I sought answers to these questions when I wrote my book, Manipurated. In my research, I interviewed multiple authors of fake reviews, including a recent college graduate I’ll call Tina, who lives on the East Coast.
Tina is one of the fake-review industry’s finest. Similar to others who participate in the sharing economy, such as Uber drivers and Etsy knitters, most fake reviewers are part-timers. But Tina is among a rare breed that has developed a winning business model. Since earning her bachelor’s degree in communications, she has developed a full-time career writing for hire.
In general, most sham reviews are easy to spot: Poor command of the English language, content so vague it seems as if it can describe any product or service, or strings of bland copy-and-paste platitudes. But not Tina’s reviews. They are impeccably written, filled with content that specifically addresses a particular product or service, and completely credible sounding. Despite being paid for, they may not even have a five-star rating. I asked her how she composed such well-crafted, seemingly legitimate reviews. She described her process:
“Sometimes my characters are true-to-life. I often change my gender, age range, and marital status depending on the product or business and my perceived concept of what a customer for that product or service looks like. . . . I think deeply about each review so that I can position my reviews as the best on a given product listing.”
Tina is proud of her ability to pull off multiple personas. Her response reminded me of how famous actors describe their creative process when preparing for a new role. She had reviewed diverse products while portraying a wide range of characters. In one post, she was a well-meaning housewife. In another review she was a starving college student waxing lyrical about beauty products.
Her job as a fake review writer requires tech savvy as well. Tina has figured out how to mask her IP address, a tactic that tricks Amazon’s servers into thinking she’s posting her reviews from different parts of the country. She has also found a simple method so that her reviews will be marked “Verified Purchase,” which means the review is linked to a person who bought a product on Amazon. In Tina’s case, she buys the product, has the individual or company that hires her reimburse her, and her review is then tagged with the verified purchase seal of approval. So while she ostensibly purchased the product, it was also given to her for free.
Fiverr is a popular website that offers a dizzying array of services, all for five dollars. From “I will create a promotional video featuring twins for you” to “I will record a custom rap song for you,” you can post either a service you’re selling or one you’re looking to purchase. On Fiverr, you could also buy or sell Amazon ratings and reviews.
Tina is among Fiverr’s top sellers and has been hired over one thousand times on the site. Individuals, such as Tina, were the focus of Amazon’s lawsuit, although she was not identified in Amazon’s case. Amazon alleges fake ratings and reviews undermine the trustworthiness of the content on its site. The company claims these reviewers are profiting at Amazon’s expense. On the surface, these are compelling arguments. No doubt, on Fiverr, fake reviewers are earning five dollars. They make money. But even at maximum capacity, no one will get rich making a living off Fiverr, which is why I take issue with Amazon’s approach.
While Amazon’s lawsuit is effective to a certain degree, its focus is narrow and ignores a much bigger problem. If the online giant was truly concerned about policing fake ratings and reviews, then it would target the individuals and companies who buy counterfeit ratings and reviews to promote their products. They are the real culprits. Suing authors of fake reviews is similar to singling out your enemy’s soldiers — while people who post fake content aren’t innocent, they aren’t bankrolling the corrupt system, either.
Fake Reviews across the Rating-and-Review Industry
In Manipurated, I profile small business owners and entrepreneurs who are adversely affected by fake ratings and reviews. Indeed, counterfeit content is the scourge of the Internet. Yelp, which processes more than 25,000 reviews, per minute, every single day, claims it identifies as fake and proactively filters out about 25 percent of its ratings and reviews. A separate study from Harvard Business School found that an additional 20 percent of Yelp’s published reviews were fake. The Internet is clearly a place where anyone can easily produce fake ratings and reviews.
For years, the entire online ratings and review industry, which includes Angie’s List, CitySearch, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and more, has been aggressively tamping down on fake reviewers. Last April, Amazon sued multiple websites, most with not-so-subtle names like as BuyAmazonReviews.com, that sell fake ratings and reviews. As a result of Amazon’s legal action, most of those sites shut down. Yelp, in particular, has proprietary (and controversial) algorithms that filter fake reviews. Also, if Yelp catches a business soliciting fake ratings and reviews, it will mark its Yelp profile with a “Consumer Alert” that will remain on the profile for 90 days.
In Tina’s case, she stopped offering Yelp reviews on Fiverr because the site’s terms of service began prohibiting its members from selling Yelp reviews. In a similar but unrelated turn of events, Yelp shut down Tina’s profile on its site because it found a business she had reviewed had allegedly solicited ratings and reviews.
“That hurt. I had written dozens of legitimate reviews since 2010. I had written positive reviews for business owners who genuinely deserved those reviews,” she says.
Which means Tina has two online personas: the woman who, for years, has provided content for free based on bona fide experience and the person with multiple personalities who is paid to post fake content. So does she feel an ethical dilemma regarding her ability to shape consumers’ opinions about products, services, companies, and brands she posts fake content about? The short answer is no.
“My one good review isn’t going to make or break a business or a customer. As much as I embellish and write about businesses and products I haven’t used, I try not to blatantly lie about what the product or business is capable of doing,” she says.
Tina adds that customers who place all their faith in a product or business are foolish. She believes they need to be more proactive and anticipate potential issues. In her case, she always considers the “what ifs”: What if the product or service doesn’t work as described? What if I don’t like it? In addition, she’s convinced that if a company has amassed a series of positive ratings and reviews, it’s held to a higher standard and charged to uphold its reputation.
Which Online Perspective Can You Trust?
Just as individuals across the globe often put the most positive versions of themselves on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and selectively screen out the negative, businesses are frequently motivated to do the same with their online ratings and reviews. Sometimes the fake ratings and reviews will provide accurate details about a product or service. Without exception, however, fake ratings and reviews are biased and loaded with conflicts of interest.
On the one hand, review writers, such as Tina, fulfill the highest aspirations of the ratings and review sites: Her posts are based on real experience, unpaid, and honest. On the other hand, she also undermines the credibility of the entire ratings and reviews system through fake content she is paid to write.
For now, Tina’s work appears everywhere on the web, including Amazon. You may have even been swayed by her ratings and reviews. So the next time you’re using ratings and reviews to evaluate your potential purchase, proceed with caution. If you can’t trust one review, how can you trust any?
While you may think you’re savvy enough to separate fake ratings and reviews from real ones, as Tina’s example points out, you’ll never know for sure.