Over the past two years, Which? research into fake reviews has uncovered how unscrupulous sellers are able to “game” online platforms to misrepresent products and services.
In a first-of-its-kind behavioral experiment, the true impact of fake reviews has now been demonstrated.
Our research tested a range of scenarios involving fake review activity, and in each of them it showed a negative effect on consumer behavior. In the worst-case scenario, we found that people were more than twice as likely to buy a poor quality product that had been spurred on by fake reviews.
Along with our previous work on fake reviews, the evidence points to the importance of the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) recently announced survey in misleading online reviews.
Video: The true impact of fake reviews
Watch our video to find out how fake reviews could manipulate you.
Which ? fake reviews behavioral experiment
We asked 10,000 people to complete a shopping task using images designed to look like the Amazon website – although the pages and content that were shown to participants in the survey did not were not genuine Amazon pages or content. Amazon was chosen because it is likely to be known to the greatest number of customers, but which one? believes that the results of the experiment are also applicable to other online platforms hosting user-generated reviews.
Participants were asked to choose one of three product types: headphones, dash cams or cordless vacuum cleaners – areas where which? has already found clear evidence of fake reviews.
In each category, five products at the same price were presented to the participants: a Which one? Best Buy, three “fillers” with poor reviews, and a Don’t Buy, which may or may not have been manipulated by fake reviews. They could read information about all five products, including seven reviews for each, before deciding which one they would most like to buy in real life.
In each of the six randomly assigned groups, varying degrees of fake review activity were highlighted, ranging from an inflated star rating to the addition of a platform endorsement label, which can often be influenced by high exam scores.
We also added the text who? investigations have previously found suspicious or false reviews, such as repetitions in topic titles and review text, overly positive language, and grammatical errors.
We then looked at the impact of this fake review activity on product selection.
Fake reviews systematically influence the selection
The graph above shows the percentage of people who chose the Don’t Buy product. In a control group where no fake review activity was simulated, just over 10% of people selected it. In each of the other groups, which applied varying degrees of fake review activity, a significantly higher proportion of people chose that product.
Treatment group four, which involved an inflated star rating, fake review text, and platform endorsement to further indicate product endorsement, saw a 136% increase in demand for the product Ne not buy, meaning participants were more than twice as likely to buy it. .
Simply increasing the average star rating and number of reviews for the Don’t Buy product resulted in a 55% increase over no false activity.
Discover our behavioral experiment by downloading the full report on the real impact of fake reviews.
Which? looking for fake reviews
Which? has illustrated many of the pitfalls of bogus review activity in a number of surveys. In February this year, we showed how platform mentions such as Amazon’s Choice may be flawed – sellers may have artificially gained endorsement status through the use of tactics such as inducement, which is against Amazon’s policies. In September 2019, we reported how fake reviews on tripadvisor could help lift hotels up the rankings.
We have also shown how reviews generated via Facebook groupsand a range of others tricks sellers use to post false or misleading reviews on Amazon and eBaymuddy the waters for customers who rely on these ratings to make an informed purchase.
The dangers of fake reviews are real – we’ve seen a range of products rated as Do not buy in which? test labs that have positive online customer review scores, displaying a range of clear hallmarks of fake review activity.
The real impact of fake reviews on consumers
Which? received hundreds of emails from consumers reporting fake online review activity, along with examples of the real impact this has had.
Jeff, 72, wanted to buy a thermometer from an online marketplace to self-check for potential symptoms of COVID-19. He told us: “Conventional thermometers were very rare, but there were some stylish ones with rave reviews from customers, so I selected the one with the most five-star reviews. It arrived quickly and an £8 voucher was included , valid if I too gave the thing a five star review.
“When I tried it didn’t work. At least if I took my temperature five times it decided I was five different people, with varying temperatures everywhere. I decided to give back the thermometer and the voucher. I’m furious that companies are allowed to claim five-star reviews in this way. The reviews were so reliable and balanced: oftentimes, you only see negative reviews. These days, everything looks like crap. marketing.
Grant bought two retro game consoles for his kids from an online marketplace, the item had 1,700 ratings and an average of 4.5 stars, but he told us: ‘When I received the consoles, I was very disappointed to receive a sturdy plastic business card in the packaging with the following text on it. “Dear Customer: If you leave a positive review, you will receive a £15/EUR15/CAD15/$15 gift card. Please send the review and order ID to the email address at back. Thank you for your attention”.
“How can we believe reviews and trust them if people are actually being paid by the vendor to leave positive reviews of their product?”
How which? fight against fake reviews
Which? supported the work of the CMA, which estimates that £23 billion a year of consumer transactions are influenced by online reviews, to try to tackle this problem.
The evidence we presented reinforces the need for the CMA’s recently announced investigation into misleading online reviews and why the regulator must take the strongest possible action against sites that fail to address this. problem.
Caroline Normand, Which one? director of advocacy, said: ‘Which? found overwhelming evidence that people are at huge risk of being misled by fake reviews, which is particularly concerning given that more people are shopping online than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Online platforms must put in place more effective measures to prevent unscrupulous sellers from easily playing the system, otherwise the CMA must take strong action against these major sites.”
When we presented our evidence to Amazon, a spokesperson said: “We want Amazon customers to buy with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant.
“We have clear policies for reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.”
Customers concerned about the authenticity of online reviews are encouraged to report this to the platform so that it can investigate. You can also email examples of fake reviews, inducements, or other suspicious review behavior to email@example.com.