We all know fraudsters like to follow where the money goes, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Asia's booming ecommerce market has raised the stakes around fake reviews. Given that reviews themselves have the power to boost everything from a business's ranking in search engines to sales figures, the temptation is high for brands to engage third-party 'reputation agencies' to tip the scales in their favour.
The practice is known as "brushing", where outside networks of fake reviewers are paid to inflate a sellers’ rankings. Last year, it was reported that one recruitment company has some 80,000 people from the region, including Singapore, on its payroll offering fake reviews for a fee. As early as 2014, Chinese media reported that over 680 websites and over 500 chat groups were engaged in faking online ratings, with allegedly over 20 million people engaged in this clandestine online industry.
Just last year, Chinese travel platform Mafengwo was accused of fabricating as much as 85% of reviews on its platform. However, the company hit back claiming that the reviews in question only accounted for 3% of the user-generated content the website offers. According to a recent transparency report, TripAdvisor prevented over 1 million fake reviews from appearing on its website in 2018.
"The fake review market is only expanding and rapidly finding new ways to exploit review platforms," says Saoud Khalifah, founder and CEO of Fakespot—a review-analysis website that uses technology to detect fake reviews. "Fakespot has analysed over 5 billion reviews to date. We estimate that around 30% of the reviews are unreliable on major platforms such as Amazon."
According to Khalifah, in the majority of cases, it’s companies trying to pump their own products by engaging in fake review marketing campaigns or positive review injections within their listings to increase their average product rating. However, they are also seeing more cases where competitors will hire a fake review farm to generate negative reviews, and engage in other nefarious tactics, to bring down a competitor's rating.
"There are definitely fake positive and fake negative reviews, but the fake positive review problem is much larger," says Tommy Noonan, chief technology officer at ReviewMeta, a review-analysis platform. "Your competitors are going to spend a lot more time challenging fake negative reviews for their own products than fake positive reviews for yours. It just makes more business sense to buy fake positive reviews for your own products."
But while fake reviews may boost short-term sales figures and search-engine rankings, it should not be considered a legitimate marketing strategy, as the long-term damages can be catastrophic for brands. "It is a risk that brands or merchants should not undertake lightly, as consumer trust will be destroyed almost instantaneously the moment such practises are brought to light," says Ed Pank, managing director of Warc Asia.
In a time when consumers are getting smarter and they are able to discern genuine reviews from fake/insincere ones when researching a purchase, the risks have never been higher.
"Using fake reviews to boost sales only works for a short period of time, as real customers eventually will find out and leave negative reviews or ask for refunds if the product quality doesn’t back up," says Xiaofeng Wang, senior analyst, Forrester. "Therefore brands, especially large brands, wouldn’t take such risks. Building a trustworthy brand image is more important than a short-term sales boost."
But with the issue of fake reviews unlikely to go away any time soon, what can be done to stop the problem? And what can brands do to safeguard themselves?
What the big ecommerce platforms are doing
"In my opinion, the onus lies with ecommerce platforms to ensure that their sites are clean, real and offer objective recommendations and there are ways that they can adopt to solve the problem of authenticity," says Prantik Mazumdar, managing partner at Happy Marketer. Mazumdar suggests the automation or manual verification of user-profiles and their past purchases, as well as regular culling of fake profiles and false reviews. In addition, he says users should also be provided avenues to flag out what they deem to be fake reviews so that the ecommerce platforms can then carry out verification assessments such as on reviewmeta.com and fakespot.com.
Players such as Alibaba and Amazon have been proactive in trying to stem the flood of fake reviews on their platforms through litigation. In 2017, a Chinese court ruled in Alibaba’s favour after it sued "brushing" firm shatui.com for 2.16 million yuan after it was found to be fabricating transactions and favourable comments related to online stores. Over a period of two years, Shatui helped to create over 26-million-yuan worth of false transactions for 3,000 shops on Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba's two most popular online retail platforms.
Meanwhile, Amazon has been filing legal actions to fight against scams since 2015 and has already sued more than 1,000 registered sellers involved in allegedly creating fake product reviews on its sites. More recently, in February, the Federal Trade Commission settled its first action against a marketer, Cure Encapsulations, which used fake paid reviews to boost ratings and sales of its product on Amazon.
Online travel giant TripAdvisor is another site determined to crack down on review fraud. "Every review that comes to TripAdvisor will first go through a pre-posting screening process via an automated review analysis system," says Becky Foley, senior director of trust and safety, TripAdvisor. "If the analysis system detects a potential problem, the review is sent to a content moderation team for further analysis."
Last year, TripAdvisor's system rejected 1.4 million review submissions. "We have adapted many of the techniques that the credit-card and banking industries use to detect fraud, including network forensics and machine learning, and applied those same principles to catching fake reviews," says Foley. "We have also benefited from an ever increasing volume of review data which we can use to train our review analysis system on the patterns of user behaviour it needs to watch out for."
What brands can do
Steven Yap, head of digital and operations at Kingdom Digital in Malaysia, believes that one way brands can do more to safeguard themselves against the problem is to set up an official brand’s page on ecommerce platforms. "This way, it helps to ensure customers that they are getting the authentic products," he says. "Also, good service and response rate from the brands would help to show they are genuine."
A 2016 article in International Journal of Market Research by L.G. Pee of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, explored how brands could mitigate the effects of negative online reviews and found that the principles of marketing management can be quite effective.
One solution proposed is ensuring there is adequate product information available to reduce reliance on reviews for information. Sellers can improve their product information regularly to address issues raised.
Consumers are increasingly wary of online reviews given the prevalence of fake ones and are increasingly savvy about doing adequate research before making a purchase. Ensuring comprehensive information is available on brand websites and other owned media and positioning these destinations as an authoritative source can help reassure consumers.
Cultivating relationships with micro-influencers and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) can also be a significant way for brands to address fake reviews, as studies have shown consumers take the opinions and recommendations of influencers they resonate with into account when making purchase considerations.
Lastly, one proven bulwark against fake or negative reviews is the strength of the brand itself and the organisation’s delivery of a consistent brand experience. Brands should look at how brand-building investment can help bolster positive consumer sentiment and ensure experiences are positive enough to spark organic word of mouth recommendations.
"Most importantly, brands and sellers themselves must refrain from any type of review fraud," says Pank. "The loss of consumer trust and potential backlash is too high a price to pay for short-term sales gains."