Fake Reviews in e-commerce

Inspired by “Is it My Opinion?”, “The Ease of Online Shopping” – blogs from fellow students – and a New York Times article, I have decided to touch upon the topic of fake reviews for my last blog.

As mentioned in “The Ease of Online Shopping”, there is a plethora of products you can order online, but another interesting aspect of the digital age (and e-commerce) is that you can assess whether a product, a restaurant or a hotel is good by looking at reviews. No wonder there are so many comparison-shopping websites and apps such as Tripadvisor. However, a big caveat is the fact that too many of comparison-shopping websites and e-commerce companies, like Amazon, allow for virtually anyone to post a review. Therefore, as a classic consequence of Digital Media, we end up with way too much information, a lot of which may be poor information. Nevertheless, online reviews are of extreme importance in e-commerce. According to Pattern, an e-commerce consulting firm, an increase of one star in Amazon’s rating system corresponds to a twenty six percent increase in sales.

Considering the motivations, an academic research paper from this year titled “The Market for Fake Reviews” exposed that it is not surprising we nowadays find ubiquitous fake reviews as a way for online sellers to shape their reputations on online platforms. The paper further explains that online sellers recruit people on Facebook groups to write fake reviews. This is clear from the fact that once the Facebook promotion has ended, the percentage of one-star reviews increases significantly. Thus, consumers are deceived into buying products that are actually not of the expected quality. Furthermore, Amazon seems to be deleting a big chunk of the (fake) reviews online sellers paid for. However, the speed at which Amazon does this is not as fast, allowing consumers to be influenced by those fake reviews. This is where I got inspired by “Is it My Opinion?”, which made me think about how digital media, be it YouTube videos, Spotify algorithms or, in this case, fake reviews in e-commerce influence us. The authors mention at the end that companies continue to perfect their platforms’ manipulation strategies, and that because of its quick development, it is increasingly difficult to detect and eliminate fake reviews.

Another interesting case is the settlement between Sunday Riley Skincare and the Federal Trade Commission from last year. Sunday Riley Skincare sells its products on Sephora and its managers had been writing fake reviews themselves on Sephora and encouraging fellow employees to do so too. At first, Sephora removed the fake employee-written reviews. Then, suspecting that Sephora had found out they were faking the reviews because of their IP address, one of the company’s managers allegedly obtained an Express VPN account to hide their online activity (I guess all of those Express VPN ads have worked). Below you can read some snippets from emails Ms. Riley, the owner herself, wrote to her employees:

  • “Make sure to NOT compare the product to other products, to not use foul language, and to be very enthusiastic without looking like a plant.”
  • “Always leave 5-star reviews.”
  • “Leave a review for a different product every day so you build up history.”
  • “If you see a negative review – DISLIKE it. After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates into sales!”

Needless to say, there are many aspects of e-commerce that have to be improved, not only regarding fake reviews but also the overwork of couriers, for example – a topic that we discussed in a previous episode of the Clowncast.

Lastly, if you are interested, there is a YouTube channel, Fake Review Watch, which is “dedicated to exposing the massive corruption of online consumer review platforms with fake reviews and the culpability of big tech companies in facilitating and covering up this fraud.”

I hope you enjoyed reading this article as I enjoyed writing it!

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7 Comments

  • Vy Dang
    Posted December 16, 2020 at 8:31 pm 0Likes

    I really enjoy your post! Your example reminds me of a few instances I heard of, yet from smaller businesses. I have friends who have online clothing stores on Facebook and Instagram. They often discuss different seeding strategies, like content seeding posting fake reviews, comments, or product seeding…etc. And they often call out other competitors who did a precarious job and make it too obvious while saying seeding isn’t necessarily bad if you do it moderately. To me, the double-standards and quarrels are hilarious as a bystander. Yet I can definitely understand how detrimental and unfair it is, especially for larger-scale businesses.

  • Bhumika Gupta
    Posted December 16, 2020 at 8:50 pm 0Likes

    Hello! I’m glad that you were inspired by my blogpost – The Ease of Online Shopping. I agree with your blogpost that there are an increasing number of fake reviews which can indeed be misleading for customers who want to buy a product. However, I’m also glad that companies are taking initiative to remove fake reviews. Furthermore, most web engines nowadays do not recommend web pages with fake reviews because of Search Engine Optimisations (SEO). If they flag a page as containing fake reviews or fake information, they would not recommend the page in the top results.
    I myself also look at reviews before buying products online, especially if its a product I’m ordering for the first time. Therefore, reviews definitely play a big part in the success or failure of a product but sellers should be vary of putting fake reviews as they may backfire more than help the product’s popularity.

  • Jeltje
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 9:09 pm 0Likes

    Hi there! Thank you for your blogpost! You really reminded me of the fact that I am often too naïve when it comes to buying products online. For instance, I have this bad quality of always looking for THE most amazing skicare products. Just like Bhumika wrote in her comment, I need to admit that I am guilty too when it comes to being influenced by reviews. And I can tell you: literally every skincare brand include their insanely ‘positive’ reviews as marketing strategy, which makes it really difficult to distinguish the really good brands from the ones whose products are of less quality. If your wondering which sites really use this type of e-commerce – I am not referring to the product’s quality here – please take a look at:
    https://eu.facetheory.com
    https://www.paulaschoice.nl/nl
    Now I have read your post, I am wondering which reviews I’ve read are indeed fake or truly based on real experiences (and on which ones I made the decision to buy products of these brands. Yes: a great example of me believing what I read in the reviews).
    Moreover, websites such as MediaMarkt.nl and Coolblue.nl ask customers to leave a review. In return, these consumers receive cash-back or some kind of discount. To conclude: reviews are used everwhere. I am glad to read that companies are improving the supervision on people’s reviews!

  • mbeenham1
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 10:37 pm 0Likes

    Your blog links to a video from the NOS I watched a few months ago on YouTube. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tyigl8NK7WI) I was wondering if there’re any (inter)national laws against fake reviews on the internet. If not, I hope that politicians are working on it because I think it’s about misleading online consumers. Misleading customers is illegal in the Netherlands (and I am sure that it is the case in many other countries too) but according to the web site of the Consumers and Market Authority (ACM), fake reviews don’t take part in the list of examples of misleading sells. But do you also think that it should be mentioned in this list?

    • s2129620
      Posted December 18, 2020 at 2:29 pm 0Likes

      Absolutely, it should be mentioned in the list. Also, thanks for the YouTube video. I have seen a few of their videos but hadn’t seen that one

  • therese
    Posted December 18, 2020 at 10:23 am 0Likes

    Interesting post! Even though I’ve heard of these fake reviews many times, it still feels strange to see snippets of an actual company owners requests for, well, all employees to commit fraud on their own review page. Based on what you said, I assume this only works in the short run – if customers are not actually satisfied with the products, they won’t come back. Still a shame that a negative review will disappear if disliked… it makes the whole thing a lot easier to keep up because new customers will still only see positive reviews. I’m definitely also too trusting of online reviews, be it a product, restaurant or hostel, I tend to go for what others have already endorsed to be good.

  • Hidde
    Posted December 18, 2020 at 7:37 pm 0Likes

    Nice summary of why e-commerce is weird! I was watching a tarot deck on etsy yesterday, whihc was 70% (from somewhere around an exorbitant €80 to around €20, which is a more normal price for a tarot deck, I imagine) on sale for the last three days (consistently listed as ‘LAST SALE DAY’), I can but only imagine half of their reviews are fake. In that regard, I think you could’ve made a whole series on e-commerce and still keep talking about the ways that e-commerce can be rude like that sometimes. Still, I think these issues shouldn’t stop at the user-end. Even if amazon fixes fake reviews, they also put their workers in crazy conditions, and that’s the case in more work spaces, especially in those that cultivate a workplace culture where someone has to write fake reviews for their work…

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