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Fake Reviews Present a Tempting Problem for Online Merchants

One of the best ways to get one’s brand or business noticed happens through the accumulation of positive ratings and reviews from customers. But a cutthroat online marketplace where greed or malice can sometimes exceed common sense has laid a troubling groundwork for reviews, even as they gain in importance.

A recent LinkedIn discussion initiated by UK-based Trustpilot warned of the temptation to commission reviews; such commissions can involve positive reviews for one’s own website, or having negative ones crafted for a competitor. Research firm Gartnerlikewise asserted that by this year, 10 to 15 percent of social media ratings and reviews would be of the commissioned variety.

That proportion of fakery, coupled with the varying ability of consumers to differentiate between fakes and real reviews, can have an impact on sales. A study by three universities published earlier in 2014 found a simple way to manipulate the opinion of someone reading a review.

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The manipulation involved presenting a negative comment in a product review, but doing so in a perceived polite manner. Participants in one experiment conducted during the study showed a willingness to pay more for a product when that item’s description included the negative-but-polite review.

Ecommerce pros who see dollar signs dancing in their vision at the prospect of boosting sales through what they might think are harmless little embellishments in their product reviews should reconsider. As Trustpilot noted, New York Attorney General Eric Schneidermann via Operation Clean Turf hit 19 companies with over $350,000 in fines in the fall of 2013 for their roles in driving the posting of fake reviews to sites like Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch.

“”Astroturfing” is the 21st century’s version of false advertising,” Schneidermann said at the time, “and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”

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David A Utter

David A. Utter is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. He has covered technology topics from search to security to online business and has been quoted in places like ZDNet and BusinessWeek. He considers his appearance on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with long-time host Robert Siegel a delightful highlight. You can find him on Twitter @davidautter and on LinkedIn.


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