Websites that rely heavily on reviews have started cracking down on the unhelpful and illegal practice of submitting or buying fake reviews.
Shortly after a number of websites have introduced new policies to fight fake reviews, an Italian marketing company owner has been jailed for selling false reviews to hundreds of hospitality firms.
Following an internal investigation by TripAdvisor and a separate investigation by the police, the owner of PromoSalento was found guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud and sentenced to nine months in prison.
In a blog post about the investigation, TripAdvisor said that they became aware of the fake review company after receiving information from several hospitality businesses.
In accordance with the review site’s policies, TripAdvisor identified the businesses that PromoSalento was working with and penalised them in the website’s rankings.
Businesses that continued submitting fake reviews after being informed of the ranking penalty were slapped with a red badge their TripAdvisor listing, informing website visitors that the company was trying to manipulate its rankings.
As well as being against review site policies, writing or buying fake reviews is also against the law. The EU’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and several national laws relating to consumer protection prohibit the practice.
In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has forced search engine optimisation (SEO) companies to stop writing phony reviews after it found that the company had published over 800 fake reviews about 86 small companies.
While the directors of Total SEO& Marketing Ltd did not face legal action, the move should serve as a warning to marketing companies and their clients not to engage in fake review behaviour.
The CMA has taken steps to ensure that review sites have the proper safeguards in place to prevent fake reviews as well. In 2016, the regulator forced five online review sites to commit to improvements that would give people a more complete picture when making buying decisions.
They also made Airbnb change its review system so that guests who cut their stay short could leave reviews more easily.
Millions of Brits browse reviews on sites including Google, Facebook, Amazon and TripAdvisor before they make a buying decision. So it is important that the reviews are genuine, accurate and relevant.
Despite the crackdown though, abuse of review systems still exists. Occasionally, action by review sites has made the problem more complicated.
In 2016, Amazon stopped sellers offering free or refunded products in return for a positive review. But according to a recent Daily Mail investigation, this just pushed the scammers underground.
Posing as buyers on a Facebook group, newspaper reporters contacted sellers and were offered a full refund on products if they five-star Amazon review.
Other businesses encouraged businesses to ask questions about products to subtly share the benefits of their products and asked people to leave photos with reviews to make them appear more genuine.
By banning ‘incentivised reviews’ Amazon has driven the practice underground, where they cannot monitor the abuses of the review system.
Best practices for reviews
To avoid getting into trouble with review sites, you should follow these best practices.
- Don’t pay for reviews. This includes paying a company to supply you with fake reviews or incentivising customers with cash, discounts or vouchers.
- Avoid ‘review gating’. This is where you actively encourage reviews from customers who you think had a positive experience to leave a review and ignore customers that may leave negative feedback.
- Don’t encourage employees to leave reviews. Reviews should come from genuine, non-biased customers.
- Don’t solicit reviews from customers in bulk. This includes setting out mass emails to customers asking for reviews. Although this may seem like an efficient way to boost your review score, it may flag the reviews as spam on certain review websites. It also goes against Google’s review guidelines.
If you spot a competitor (or any company) breaking any of these rules or are approached by a marketing company that sells fake reviews, you can report them to the relevant review site.
There are ways that you can boost your online star rating, we have detailed a few of the most effective strategies in this blog post on Google reviews.