Fake reviews have been a problem for decades. As more and more people use the internet to decide which businesses or products are best for them, businesses have more incentive to generate reviews. Many people are wondering, what’s being done about fake reviews? Is there anything that businesses, platforms, or people can do? Recently, review platforms have cracked down on this practice.
What Are Fake Reviews?
First of all, what are fake reviews? Fake reviews are any reports about a business or product that aren’t genuine–they are made by people or programs that have not actually used the product or business, or aren’t providing a truthful report about their experience. These disingenuous reports can appear almost anywhere, from small neighborhood groups on sites like Facebook to Q&A forums on sites like Reddit to product listing on sites like Amazon. In this blog post, we’ll be mainly focusing on the sites where fake reviews have become the biggest problems for consumers—Amazon and Google.
Are Google and Amazon Struggling With Fake Reviews?
Amazon and Google have attracted thousands of fake reviews. Though other third-party review sites, like Yelp or Expedia, also have this problem, the scale of the problem is much larger on Google and Amazon.
Why are Google and Amazon affected more than other sites? This is most likely because these two businesses are the largest among review sites. Google attempts to list every brick-and-mortar business a customer could visit, including those that don’t actually claim their Google listing, and those without a website. Amazon works similarly for products. Though Amazon has repeatedly employed unethical practices against employees, businesses and consumers, the platform is still the go-to stop for many online shoppers. Therefore, businesses have extra incentive to make their products and businesses look good on these platforms.
Reviews play a big part in how much customers trust a product or business, and how likely they are to buy it or make a visit. A business or product with no reviews is unlikely to get many sales, but every business has to start with zero reviews. Since these sites explicitly forbid the use of fake reviews, but the incentive is high, this has led to a “black market” of review sites.
Are Fake Reviews Getting Worse?
Google, Amazon, and other websites have been fighting fake reviews for decades. Services which offer fake reviews in exchange for money—allowing businesses to buy fake reviews—have been around for years, and shutting them down has proven to be a difficult, often international affair.
In 2015, Amazon brought suits against over 1,000 businesses engaged in fake reviews. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined a business 12.8 million for buying fake Amazon reviews. However, the problem persisted. In 2022, Amazon said it had removed more than 200 million suspected fake reviews. Google said it had removed 115 million reviews in 2022, which was 20% more than the previous year.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has made this problem worse. Previously, fake review businesses had to hire individuals to write fake reviews. It doesn’t take long to write a fake review, but AI programs can write them even faster, in a matter of seconds. Fake reviews are now easier than ever to create, and they can be difficult to distinguish from real reviews. This has made the fake review problem worse, and customers are increasingly losing confidence in reviews they see on sites like Google or Amazon. So what can be done, if anything?
What’s Being Done About Fake Reviews?
Though fake testimonials and reviews are already illegal under Section 5 of the FTC Act (15 USC 45 FTC), this has not been enough to dissuade bad actors. The FTC has struggled to bring actions against businesses selling fake reviews, as well as those buying them. Similarly, platforms like Amazon and Google have struggled to handle this problem using civil suits alone. However, these platforms and the FTC may be joining forces to battle fake reviews.
In June, 2023, the FTC announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking “to stop marketers from using illicit review and endorsement practices such as using fake reviews, suppressing honest negative reviews, and paying for positive reviews.”
“Our proposed rule on fake reviews shows that we’re using all available means to attack deceptive advertising in the digital age,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The rule would trigger civil penalties for violators and should help level the playing field for honest companies.”
Depending on how these news are adopted, this may open the door for the FTC to collaborate with platforms like Amazon, Google, and others, in order to shut down businesses selling fake reviews. Additionally, the platforms themselves are collaborating to form greater opposition to the rise of fake reviews. Amazon, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Glassdoor, Tripadvisor, and Trustpilot announced in October of 2023 that they were forming The Coalition for Trusted Reviews, a collaborative agency “focused on reducing fraudulent customer reviews.” An alliance between these businesses, combined with intervention from the FTC, may help each group take a stronger approach, and ultimately curb fake reviews.
Can Fake Reviews Be Stopped?
Industry alliances to fight deception, as well as more regulatory pressure, are good starts in the fight against fake reviews, but many watchdog groups are saying that these interventions are coming too late. The size and scope of fake reviews have been a problem growing right alongside market superpowers like Google and Amazon. Proponents for regulation in Big Tech say the platforms are responsible for this problem, and haven’t done enough to stop it.
Critics also contend that governments have not held these tech giants accountable, especially in the United States. The European Union’s Digital Services Act, for example, has helped to bring tech conglomerates to task for a variety of illicit practices, including tax evasion, illicit use of consumer data, and content moderation, which includes rampant fake reviews. However, in the US, federal law shields companies from liability over content posted on their platforms. This means the groups with the most power to stop fake reviews—the platforms themselves—have relatively little outside incentive to address the problem.
There’s no question that fake reviews have become a big problem, and it’s becoming difficult to rely on reviews from supposed customers. The FTC and collaborating platforms will need a concentrated effort and an organized plan to fight this issue.
What Can Businesses Do?
In the meantime, individual businesses can leverage a few tools to show real support from real customers. Video reviews are one of the best ways to show that your customers are real and their feelings are genuine. Gathering video reviews takes just a few steps, and video testimonial requests can even be automated. As customers increasingly question the authenticity of reviews on sites like Google and Amazon, leveraging the video reviews you collect yourself may be a powerful asset.
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