Fake online reviews mean cash-for-comment is rife

Online reviews — of apps, books, films, hotels and restaurants — increasingly drive consumer decisions, but with as many as a third of them fake, can people take what they read at face value?

Nielsen research suggests that 71 per cent of Australians look at web reviews from other members of the public — on sites such as Google Local, Urban Spoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon — before buying.

Unsurprisingly, a market has emerged for fake online appraisals, which are openly bought on sites such as Fiverr and Freelancer. In some cases the reviewers have not seen or used the product before rating it.

Reharn Morris, from Devonport in Tasmania, has been paid to write reviews of products such as Xbox controllers and e-books through Freelancer.com. The site even has a section dedicated to jobs for reviews.

“All reviews are to be written as if you are a customer; they are to be positive and you've really never even seen the product,” Morris told Fairfax.

“You are given all the info. It is actually starting to test my ethics, as I like to tell the truth, and not write stories.”

But the work is not a path to riches. “I have recently typed a 12 page document for $20, and I have completed some review jobs being paid $1 per 500 words,” she said.

Gartner released a report this month claiming between 10 and 15 per cent of all social media ratings and reviews would be paid for by companies by 2014.

Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, estimated recently in a New York Times article that a third of all consumer reviews on the web are fake. Liu's research in 2008 showed that 60 per cent of reviews on Amazon awarded the product five stars while a further 20 per cent were four stars.

Fake reviews are notoriously difficult to spot. Cornell University researchers pooled 400 truthful reviews of Chicago hotels from TripAdvisor and paid for another 400 deceptive reviews and trained software to spot the difference. They believe their software can spot fake reviews 90 per cent of the time (compared to 50 per cent for the average person) and have created a website, reviewskeptic.com, allowing anyone to give it a go.

Economists at the University of California, Berkeley looked at ratings of 300 restaurants in San Francisco. They wrote in the September issue of Economic Journal that when a restaurant's rating on Yelp improved by just half a star (on a scale of one to five), the likelihood of its 7pm bookings selling out went up from 30 per cent to 49 per cent.

Luke, 18, from Melbourne, offers a detailed review of your iPhone or iPad app on the Australian iTunes store for $5 a piece. “I am a registered IOS developer, and know what it takes for reviews to make users want to download an App,” he writes in his ad on Fiverr.

“I ask them what rating they are hoping to achieve, and if they say they want four stars I'll try to give them four stars. Mainly just focusing on the positive content helps a bit,” Luke told Fairfax. “There is a bit of an ethical issue there; I won't lie.”

In a separate ad he offers $5 iTunes reviews of songs, “honest or as requested by you”.

Luke estimates he's done 30 to 40 review jobs so far (“I'll get a few gigs every couple of nights, it all ads up.”) He said he had done reviews for “a few large companies”, including Australian “online betting applications”. He has been asked to write reviews of hotels on Wotif and TripAdvisor but didn't go ahead with it because he doesn't have accounts on those sites.

Michelle, 39, a beauty therapist from Perth who goes by the name cheekymm on Fiverr.com, does 45-second product or business testimonials on video for $5 a pop. She also offers reviews of books and bands and says in her ad “you provide the script and I will say it pretty much word-for-word”.

“I tell you what, the testimonial and reviews — if you want to do those gigs, they're just endless,” she said. “I'll review websites, books, bands, products, apps. Anything pretty much.”

She said most of the time she recorded the videos and sent them to the company, which then published them online. “I probably do maybe about 10 to 15 a week. I do suspend my gigs quite often because ... cyber's really just a hobby so I can't let it get the better of me,” she said.

All basic services on Fiverr are $5 but users can offer “extras”. Michelle said she charged an extra $5 for overnight delivery and an extra $5 for recording in high definition.

Sydney-based food blogger Penny, whose site jeroxie.com/addiction receives 22,000 to 25,000 unique visitors a month, said she was regularly offered free meals and sent free cooking products in exchange for reviews.

“If we [bloggers] don't like something we basically just don't really write about it at all — because especially if you're invited, it's not very nice,” she said. “But if I do go out and it's my personal experience which I pay for my myself and it's something that I don't like, I sometimes do write about it — not in a nasty way but I'll give it my two cents.”

Penny said she, like many other bloggers, had been paid by companies to review their products but “everything is my own words”. “The highest amount I got was about $800 or something ... it's [for] a brand of milk that baristas use for coffee so we were supposed to test that at home and posted a review online,” she said.

She said food bloggers weren't the only ones on the gravy train.

“Fashion and 'mummy' bloggers are receiving much more ... free trips, products, events and much more,” said Penny.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) prohibited “false or misleading testimonials”. It said what was misleading depended on the circumstances but online reviews were covered.

“Representations in testimonials and online reviews that are used to promote a business or their product must not mislead consumers,” the ACCC said, adding even overseas sites could be covered by the ACL in some instances.

In November last year the removalist Citymove was forced to pay a $6600 fine to the ACCC after it published false consumer testimonials on its MovingReview.com.au website.

Julian Peterson, a sales and marketing director who previously worked at TimeOut Sydney, said when the magazine launched its iPhone app, rival Stress Press Australia wrote a scathing review in the App Store, before being outed by Mumbrella.

“The problem with the [app] store is that you have no right of reply and many of the comments there are rival developers',” he said.

TripAdvisor was investigated by Britain's Advertising Standards Authority last year. It found “consumers might be fooled by fraudulent posts since the entries could be made without any form of verification”. The site was forced to remove the slogan “reviews you can trust” from the British version of its website.

Peterson said he had previously analysed the TripAdvisor reviews of some hotels in the Blue Mountains. “[We] found them referring to 'food and beverage outlets provided a great choice' and 'front of house staff were keen to assist, in particular the concierge' — which all seemed very much like terms their own staff would use,” he said.

Media companies and organisations such as Choice have long specialised in independent reviews but are increasingly competing with user-generated review sites. Choice spokeswoman Ingrid Just said it was partly up to consumers to pick reputable sources of information.

“A mate of mine was booking a hotel just yesterday — she's coming from regional Queensland with two little kids and her husband and wanted to find accommodation in Sydney that was close to town — [and] going by the reviews she ended up booking a place in [red-light district] Kings Cross,” Just said.

Fake reviews are particularly rife in the book industry and there have been a number of high-profile cases of authors writing sock-puppet reviews of their own work and trashing the competition.

Most recently, successful crime writer R.J. Ellory admitted to posting reviews of his own work on Amazon.com, calling himself “one of the most talented authors of today” and describing his book as “a modern masterpiece” that “will touch your soul”.

A blog post on Consumers Ransom compared buying shirts from Australian retailer Herringbone with ordering online from TM Lewin in Britain and posting to Australia, declaring TM Lewin the winner.

A commenter, Josh McNicol, responded declaring the Herringbone shirts to be of far superior quality, without disclosing that, according to his LinkedIn page, he was Herringbone's brand and marketing manager.

The story Fake online reviews mean cash-for-comment is rife first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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