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How to Spot Fake Product Reviews

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When Amazon allowed customers to post reviews of the books they bought in 1995, it changed the way people chose what to buy. Reviews had long been the provenance of gatekeepers: at that time, the newspapers and magazines that published book reviews. As Amazon branched out into other products, these customer reviews took the place of those in print media that covered specialist subjects such as computing, photography, and more.

Now, reviews are everywhere and most people seem inclined to put at least some faith in them. How many times have you seen a product on Amazon or another site, or a restaurant or hotel, with four- or five-star reviews and been disappointed by it after your direct experience?

This is because the review system on Amazon (and other websites) has been gamed. In this article, I’m going to tell you how you can spot fake reviews and I’ll show you a couple of websites that can help you sort the real reviews from the bogus.

Why Review?

Lots of people review products and services on the internet, but most people who do so only review items they really like or really hate. You’ll generally find more five-star reviews for many items and if something isn’t very good, you’ll find lots of one-star reviews. The latter are a good sign that something is amiss, but too many five-star reviews can be suspicious. In addition, many five-star reviews are not very elaborate. Often they just contain a few words. Here are some complete five-star reviews I’ve sourced from Amazon:

Quick shipping. Good for the price
Exactly as described, delivered on time.
It works great
Fantastic customer service and a great product

You’ll encounter reviews of this kind often when looking at electronics, gadgets, or other products that are made cheaply in China, but also for kitchenware, tools, and more. It’s obvious that these reviews say absolutely nothing about the product but in the overall rating they have a huge effect. This product gets an average of 4.2 out of 5 stars, in part because of “quick shipping.”

These reviews attempt to skew the overall score because that’s what most people look at; they generally don’t read the reviews, especially the longer ones. I do when I’m looking to buy something like a camera, a home entertainment device, or a book. I don’t even read the short reviews; I only look at the ones where someone has taken the time to write a couple hundred words.

While some of these longer reviews may be fakes, the companies that churn out fake reviews are generally in developing countries and are “written” by people with limited English language skills, so they just toss out short reviews, often which are posted in a number of variants by multiple fake accounts.

Finding the Real Reviews

Fake reviews flourish for certain types of products, as mentioned above. In general, book reviews are honest, but there have been notable cases of authors or Public Relations agencies trying to game the system. (One notable “number one” Amazon book reviewer who wrote 30,000 reviewer turned out to be a fraud.) Movie and CD reviews are also mostly honest; people don’t judge cultural items the same way as for tools, cameras, or toys.

Real reviews tend to be longer and well written, though not perfect. To verify the quality of a review, click on a reviewer’s name to see how many other reviews they’ve written; if they are all for similar products and all five-star reviews be suspicious. Fake reviewers also submit a lot of reviews in a short time, so look at the dates on their reviews as well.

One thing that Amazon has tried to do recently is display whether the review was for a “verified purchase;” in other words, proof that the person who wrote the review purchased the product from Amazon. There are legitimate cases where a non-verified purchase may be valid. The book industry uses a service called NetGalley, which provides pre-release ebooks to reviewers who commit to posting reviews on blogs, on social media, or on Amazon. They do this so there are reviews of books on release date which can help sales. Reviewers who use this service are expected to say that they got a free copy of the book through NetGalley.

Free products given to reviewers have long been a problem with Amazon and other sites. Prolific reviewers get offered lots of free products in exchange for a “fair and balanced” review, but Amazon is trying to stamp out that practice. Now companies are giving deep discounts as much as 99% off so the products still show up as “verified purchases.”

There are some websites that can help you find which reviews are real. They use a set of algorithms to determine the quality of reviews based on their length, the language they use, the number of reviews the reviewers have written, and more. Just yesterday, I was looking for an accessory for my camera. I need some step-up rings; these are used to put filters on lenses whose diameter is different. I checked a number of brands on Amazon and checked their reviews on FakeSpot, a site that has analyzed several million reviews. The one I selected has an A rating, meaning that over 90% of reviews look like they are honest.

(Another site that only checks Amazon reviews is ReviewMeta, and The Review Index tries to break down reviews according to characteristics discussed in the reviews in addition to checking for fake reviews.)

FakeSpot doesn’t just analyze Amazon reviews. They also check reviews of games on the App Store; here’s what they think of the reviews for the current most popular free game for iOS:

FakeSpot also checks reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor. You can search businesses, hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions, and find which are honest and which are fluff. At least a tourist attraction like Stonehenge has honest reviews.

Bear in mind also that posting a lot of bad reviews can be a tactic used by competitors to attempt to downgrade products. It is increasingly hard to trust reviews, but the best way is to look for serious reviews is to find those that that say a lot and check who wrote them. Some reviewers have a long history of writing reviews and are more trustworthy.

There are plenty of people trying to trick you on the internet and fake customer reviews is one way they can take advantage of you. With these tools and a better understanding of the review process, you can help ensure that your purchases are better informed.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →