If you believe the naysayers, online review communities are a hotbed of corruption and fakery, where offshore contractors are paid to smother review communities with glowing reviews about a company in exchange for the green stuff, and where customers blackmail retailers into giving them huge discounts by threatening them with a negative review.

At a glance, the headlines in the broadsheet and tabloid press would seem to back up these claims, suggesting that it’s a problem of epidemic proportions with numerous horror stories playing on the worst fears of concerned consumers.

Here are some prime examples of headlines that have been seen in the media recently:

10 – 15% of all online customer reviews written will be fake by the end of this year, according to a Gartner report 

It all adds up to a pretty damning indictment of the online review scene, but what the naysayers don’t say is that online reviews remain vital to both consumers and business because:

  • Online reviews provide an invaluable customer-to-business feedback loop.

  • The percentage of fake reviews remains small compared to genuine ones.

  • Online reviews are set to grow, with consumers turning to online reviews despite the negative press. For instance, according to the 2013 Travel Weekly Consumer Trends Survey, 97% of those who consult travel review sites are swayed by the opinions they find on them

This all means that the industry must tackle the issue of fake online reviews head on, and underlines how important it is that respectable companies sign up to a properly moderated online review community.

A serious player 

However there are people and companies out there that are committed to fighting fake reviews, and this includes investing in and developing software to help users spot fakes.

These companies are developing systems to zero-in on suspicious activities as well as relying on their communities to help identify and investigate reviews, further ensuring their quality and authenticity.

Why do companies fake it?

No matter what safeguards are put in place though, there will still be companies tempted, or desperate enough, to consider hiring fake online review writers.

But there are several reasons why they might want to take a step back and reconsider:

Found out!

If the company is eventually called out for faking its reviews, it can expect the revelation to damage its brand.

In other words, the minimal amount of money spent paying for fake reviews will be dwarfed by the amount of money lost when disgusted consumers walk away from the business.

Too good to be true?

If reviews of a company’s services or products are overwhelmingly high then increasingly aware consumers are going to be suspicious.

Because of fake review horror stories in the press, even the least web-savvy customers are wising up to the tricks of the fakery trade.

And even if the company is not officially ‘found out’, the effect could still be profound on its bottom line as consumers decide that they simply don’t believe that any company can have zero or very few negative reviews.

Oh, and the law…

Companies found to be enlisting the help of fake reviewers could find themselves in legal hot water. The Advertising Standards Authority told the Guardian newspaper that, “the strict Advertising Code prohibits advertisers from falsely claiming or implying they are acting as a consumer” and companies found to be posting fake reviews “could be subject to investigation by Trading Standards or the Office of Fair Trading.”

In a recent case 19 companies were collectively fined $350,000 in New York after being caught paying for fake reviews. Expect similar cases around the world in the near future.

How to spot fake reviews

One way companies and review communities can help themselves is to help their consumers spot potentially fake reviews.

Here’s a handy cheat sheet for spotting them:

1. Be suspicious of reviews written in terrible English. It may indicate that the reviewer is based in a country notorious for outsourcing fake reviews.

You should ensure you choose a neutral, independent, open platform which takes action if you report suspicious reviews. Leading review communities remove suspected fakes pending investigation. 

Warning Bell Rating: 3 out of 5

2. Monitor where your reviews are coming from by only encouraging reviews from verified buyers.

Warning Bell Rating: 4 out of 5 

3. Avoid reviews that simply heap praise on a product without giving any reasons into why it is so exemplary. 

You want real-world information, not hyperbole. (To make sure the reviews you get from your customers are useful, thoroughly consider the questions you ask them and how – a customer review invitation is a powerful tool.)

Warning Bell Rating: 4 out of 5

4. Allow your community to be involved in spotting fakes. Let them be ambassadors, but also brand police. 

Warning Bell Rating: 1 out of 5