How to spot fake online reviews and identify real ones

By Rebecca Montag | December 29, 2022
How to spot fake online reviews and identify real ones
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When you’re buying something online, how often do you read the reviews? Chances are, they play a big role in your buying decisions. In fact, 98% of consumers say they use reviews as an “essential resource” when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.

Reviews are indeed a great resource for customers, but there are a lot of fake reviews out there. While it’s hard to estimate the exact number of fake reviews, it’s a widely recognized problem, with eCommerce platforms and recommendation sites working to combat these fraudulent players.

Consumers are well aware of the abundance of fake reviews, too, and are suspicious. According to one survey, 62% of consumers believe they read a fake local business review within the last year. Sometimes, however, it can be hard to tell if reviews are the genuine opinions of fellow consumers or facetious marketing schemes.

If you don’t want to get scammed or wind up with a lousy product, it’s a good idea to learn how to spot fake reviews. Read on to learn more about reviews and how to identify fakes.

Why Reviews Matter

As humans, our behavior and decision-making is influenced by psychological principles over which we have little control. One of the principles that greatly impacts our buying choices is social proof.

Social proof the idea that people adapt their behavior in order to copy the actions of those around them. When it comes to marketing, social proof means that people are more likely to make a purchase when they see that other people have already bought and enjoyed an item.

Showing social proof is an excellent way for marketers to increase sales of a product, and reviews are one of the best ways to do so. When a brand has more reviews, consumers are more likely to make a purchase. A product page with 1-10 reviews has a 52.2% better chance of converting customers than one with no reviews. And if there are 101 or more reviews, the conversion rate increases by over 250%!

Identifying Fakes: People vs. Computers

With so many people putting their trust in reviews, it’s important to know which ones are real and which are fake.

With this purpose in mind, researchers at Cornell University conducted a study to determine how well people can spot false reviews. They presented three volunteers with a combination of real reviews and fake reviews, and asked them to identify the fake ones.

It turns out that the volunteers had a very tough time selecting the false reviews. They struggled to come to a consensus and correctly selected the fake reviews in fewer than 50% of the cases!

The researchers then decided to put computers to the test. They developed computer software to identify fake reviews based on an algorithm. When presented with 800 reviews of hotels, the computer identified fraudulent reviews with 89.8% accuracy. The computer was way better at singling out the fake reviews than humans were.

Check the Text for These Red Flags

Using the computer’s success, the Cornell team came up with some specific signs that a review isn’t to be trusted. These are some of the big red flags they pinpointed.

1. The review is lacking in concrete detail

The first warning sign that the Cornell researchers found that a review is phony is a lack of specific and concrete detail. That makes sense, because it’s hard to write a detailed review about something you didn’t use or experience. Instead, fraudulent reviews will often include general positive words and praise.

For example, genuine hotel reviews are more likely to include words describing specific aspects of the hotel, such as “bathroom,” “check-in,” and “price”.

False reviews, on the other hand, use more general words to set the scene without actually describing the hotel. They are more likely to include words like “vacation,” “business trip,” or “my husband”. A fake hotel review will often use such words to tell a story about a special trip or event, rather than describing the actual price or check-in experience.

2. The review includes many first person pronouns

If a review uses an excessive number of first person pronouns like “I” or “me”, there’s a good chance it’s a fake review. This is because people who are trying hard to appear sincere tend to talk more about themselves.

When someone writes a fake review, they are nervous about coming across as insincere. They don’t want it to seem fake. Therefore, they often write more about themselves, using these first person pronouns. It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for this type of language when deciding if a review can be trusted.

3. The review has more verbs than nouns

Another warning sign that a review might be fake is a heavy use of verbs. Fake reviews tend to be written in an imaginative voice, since they cannot describe concrete aspects of a product or service. According to language analysis, imaginative writing uses more verbs.

People who are attempting to deceive others are more likely to tell short stories about the product or service instead of actually shedding light on the features. These stories include more verbs.

When reviews are real and genuine, on the other hand, the writer uses more nouns as they describe the item. Since they actually experienced the product or service in question, they don’t have to resort to stories, so their use of verbs is usually minimal.

4. The review uses complicated language

Even though fake reviews have less concrete information, they’ll often use more complex language. Through the use of linguistic text analysis, researchers found that liars will frequently insert longer sentences into their text, often with more complex sentence structures. They do this as an attempt to cover their lack of insight.

Another way that fraudulent reviews may disguise their lies is through the use of longer words. Instead of simple and factual descriptions, they’ll dance around actually sharing details through this use of complicated language.

5. The review has poor punctuation

Reviews that are poorly written and contain numerous grammatical errors and spelling mistakes are likely to be false, too. Fake reviewers are not paid well, and often write review after review without paying too much attention to grammar and spelling. This leads to sloppy reviews.

Keep an eye out for such reviews and proceed cautiously when there are more grammar and spelling errors than usual.

Other Signs a Review May Be Fake

In addition to warning signs in the text, there are several other indications that a review is fraudulent. These are some other elements to look out for when trying to determine if reviews can be trusted.

1. There are too many five star reviews

One of the most notorious and obvious signs that a product has fake reviews is an overwhelming number of positive reviews and a lack of negative and mediocre feedback. In fact, consumers tend to be suspicious of products that only have five star reviews and lack criticism.

When someone posts fake reviews on their product page, their intention is to convince other potential customers to make a purchase. Therefore, they’re most likely to pay for and post five star reviews raving about the product. In addition, if there are fake negative reviews, they’ll probably be just one star. Not many people post fake two or three star reviews, so those are more likely to be real.

A study conducted by Northwestern University found that online shoppers were influenced the most by reviews that averaged between 4.2 and 4.5 stars. When there are too many five star reviews, consumers often feel like it’s “too good to be true”.

2. The reviewer looks suspicious

If you’re not sure if a review is trustworthy, take a closer look at the reviewer. On Amazon, for example, reviews posted by someone who actually purchased the product have an “Amazon Verified Purchaser” tag. These reviews are more likely to be authentic.

On other review sites like eBay or Etsy, you can look at the feedback percentage to see what type of feedback the reviewer leaves on other products. If you’re still not sure, you can Google the reviewer’s name to find out if they have an internet presence. False reviews tend to be written under pseudonyms or through fake accounts. Therefore, you can find out if the reviewer is a real person by checking their social media accounts.

A reviewer with no internet presence who doesn’t review other products is a pretty good sign that the review is a fake.

3. The timestamps don’t make sense

When a product has a number of five star reviews that were all posted within a very short time frame, there’s a good chance that it’s fake. Check the timestamps on reviews, and be wary if there are too many posted on the same day, or even within the same hour.

If you see lots of reviews posted within a very short period of time, it’s possible that someone was paid to write and post them in an attempt to increase sales. Be particularly careful if there are long gaps of time between bunches of positive posts. With some exceptions, it’s not common for real reviewers to all post their reviews at the same time, so this is a good red flag to look out for.

4. There’s not a lot of information about the company

A company that does not have contact information or their own website is another indicator of false reviews. After all, if you have no way of contacting them when you’re not satisfied with a product, they have nothing to lose.

Do some research into the brand to see if you can find a website beyond an Amazon storefront. Check out their social media presence and see if they respond to comments and messages. Try to find a phone number and location for the business too, as that makes it possible to hold them accountable.

5. A product’s reviews vary significantly between websites

If reviews are completely different on different websites or eCommerce platforms, you might want to reconsider your purchase. This is particularly true when the reviews are overwhelmingly positive on one website but more negative on another website. The company may have paid for fake reviews to boost sales on one website but not the other.

6. There are too many similarly staged photos

Images are an important part of reviews, and they can also help you determine if the review is authentic. When trying to determine if a product has fake reviews, look through the photographs posted alongside the reviews. If too many of them look staged in similar ways, they might be fraudulent.

When real reviewers take photos of a product, they don’t typically stage the photos. In addition, photos included in different reviews should appear in different locations, from different angles, and with varying quality. When the images are too similar, it’s wise to do some more research before trusting them.

Do Your Research and Don’t Get Scammed By False Reviews

Consumers rely on reviews to make their purchasing decisions, but the internet is full of fake reviews. In order to avoid falling for false reviews, make sure to do some research. Check the text for warning signs like lack of detail, lots of first person pronouns, too many verbs, complicated language, and poor punctuation. Look into the reviewer and the company, and cross reference the reviews on other websites to make sure they are consistent. Beware of suspicious timestamps and photos, too.

There are also some tools out there to help consumers identify fake reviews, such as Fakespot. These can help you identify reviews that you shouldn’t trust, but it’s always wise to use your own discretion.

Avoid scams and disappointment when shopping online by reading reviews with caution. Even though it can be a challenge to identify fake reviews, thorough research can help you decide which reviews to trust and which products and companies to avoid.

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