Fake Online Reviews: Unethical, Misleading and Bad for Business

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fake online reviews
(Last Updated On: October 31, 2018)

Online reviews can be incredibly powerful, and online reputation management is an integral digital marketing strategy for most businesses. According to recent statistics:

  • 90 percent of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business.
  • Online reviews may impact 67.7% of purchasing decisions.
  • 74 percent of consumers say positive reviews increase their trust in local businesses.

Unfortunately, positive reviews aren’t always elicited honestly (or even left by actual consumers). As competition in the online marketplace grows, there has been an onslaught of “opinion spam,” the deceptive practice of hiring third parties to write fake online reviews in exchange for payment, discounts, or other incentives.

Sound shady? It is. And it’s against the law.

Fake Online Reviews: Illegal, Unethical and Just Plain Deceitful

Consumers have the right to expect reviews of products, brands and businesses to be authentic and credible. The Federal Trade Commission agrees.

Per the FTC’s basic tenets of truth in advertising, online reviews and endorsements must be honest and not misleading. Marketers and advertisers who use online reviews in their strategy should practice fair and equal collection reviews – even if some reviews are negative – and should not write, commission, or publish fake reviews, among other guidelines embraced both in the US and internationally.  

Failure to comply with these principles is not only unethical, but could also subject marketers to criminal and civil penalties.

Despite the potential fines and obvious ethical conundrum, coerced or fake online reviews solicited to improve ratings, rankings and reputation for products, companies and services seem to have established their permanence in the digital marketplace. An article published earlier this year in the Washington Post shed light on the widespread practice of commissioning fraudulent reviews via Facebook in exchange for compensation or incentives.

The more glowing ratings and reviews a product has on an online retail site like Amazon, the higher they will show up in search results. Honest merchants and small businesses that use the platform are often crushed by the duplicitous dealings of competition, the Washington Post reports.

Despite crackdowns from retail giants like Amazon, the problem persists –  so much so that tools built specifically to expose fake reviews, like FakeSpot and ReviewMeta, exist.

Sometimes, however, the tables turn on those brands that use fake online reviews on their own websites. For instance, if a business has requested its employees to write favorable reviews to  jazz up a product or service listing, Google’s algorithm can detect that the reviews are coming from one IP address or a small, defined location and remove that site from search results.

Plus, consumers that suspect a company employs fake reviews to amp up their site may call out the business, exposing the lie to other potential customers. That business can quickly lose trust and credibility among its target market.

How to Elicit Authentic Reviews

While online reviews are important and often act as a powerful tool to convert site visitors into customers, using fake reviews is unethical at best and illegal at worst. Luckily, there are perfectly reasonable and principled ways to encourage customers to leave reviews for your company’s products or services.

Social media and email marketing offer the ability to constantly engage with your company’s following. These channels serve as perfect vessels to request reviews from your best marketers – legitimate customers. Add a footnote in a weekly newsletter to encourage subscribers to leave a rating and review next time they visit the site. Post a similar callout on your social channels.

Search Engine Land shares other ways to encourage honest and authentic reviews, like:

  • Emailing recent customers with a link that will take them directly to a review submission form,
  • Putting up a sign at your brick-and-mortar location telling customers that reviews are appreciated (but not expected or incentivized),
  • Adding a card to packaging that encourages recipients to leave a review online once the have received their product

Sure, you’ll have to stomach negative reviews here and there. Let them serve as opportunities to better your product or service and turn an unhappy customer into an engaged and loyal follower. In the end, honest, real reviews are some of the best marketing tools you can use to keep your consumers happy, informed and inspired.