According to a recent Gartner study, brands are increasingly paying for fake online reviews, and by 2014, 15% of all reviews will be fake.
And it's not too difficult to figure out why: research has shown that 88% of consumers turn to online reviews when making a purchase.
For obvious reasons, the scourge of fake reviews is a threat to popular reviews sites. After all, if fake reviews proliferate and consumers start to question online reviews in general, they could fall out of favor.
So one of the most prominent online reviews sites, Yelp, is fighting back. As detailed by the New York Times' David Streitfeld, the company, which went public earlier this year, thinks shaming businesses that purchase fake reviews might be the answer:
Like every Web site that depends on consumer critiques, Yelp has a problem with companies trying to manipulate their results. So it set up a sting operation to catch them. The first eight businesses — including a moving company, two repair shops and a concern that organizes treasure hunts — will find themselves exposed on Thursday.
For the next three months, their Yelp profile pages will feature a "consumer alert" that says: "We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business."
Potential customers will see the incriminating e-mails trying to hire a reviewer.
Naturally, the businesses caught in Yelp's honey pot will probably be embarrassed by the badge of shame that now graces their Yelp profiles. But will it work?
The solution, or a can of worms?
Yelp's sting operation may give other businesses considering paying for reviews pause, but it's highly unlikely the company can scale these sting operations significantly. So business owners committed to faking it until they make it will probably assume, perhaps correctly, that the odds they'll be caught and punished are fairly low.
Other services have applied technology-based solutions to the challenge of weeding out fake reviews, but this opens the door to false positives. And without humans at the helm engaging in a law enforcement-like operation, sneaky business owners could theoretically try to frame their competitors. That, for obvious reasons, could create even bigger headaches.
You can't fool all of the people all of the time
So what's the answer? The concern over fake reviews is well-placed, but companies like Yelp may overestimate how much they need to do to protect users. Chances are most of us have spotted a review that looked suspicious and which was dismissed to some extent as a result. The ability of users to filter the wheat from the chaff will, obviously, vary from user to user, but it seems unlikely that every user believes what he or she reads.
Interestingly, businesses that would purchase fake reviews shouldn't underestimate users either: according to a study published earlier this year, the presence of bad reviews may actually improve conversions, suggesting that businesses trying to fool potential customers may ultimately be fooling themselves.