Craft Beer, Fine Wine, Artisan Spirits, and Mouthgasmic Food.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to spot fake reviews

You're a business owner, and you're wondering how other businesses get so many reviews.  How did Uchi get 527 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars on Yelp (as of 1/1/11)?  How did Sugar Mama's get 314 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars on Yelp (as of 1/1/11)?  How come no one is talking about your business?  *I know that Uchi and Sugar Mama's do NOT engage in the behavior described below.  Thusly, I feel comfortable using their data. 

The temptation sets in.  You want more people to know about you.  You think no one will find out.  You're antsy for people to click on your website link.  You make a fake account on Yelp.  You give yourself five stars.  You wait a few minutes.  That wasn't too bad.  So you make another fake account.  You give yourself another five stars.  That was easy.  On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog right?  So you do it again. And again. And again.  Now you have seven positive reviews.  Job well done!  You ask your employees to log onto Yelp and to write reviews.  You ask all your friends, suppliers, regulars, and family members to do it.  It isn't technically wrong, if you don't get caught.  What an easy way to increase your ratings and pump up those reviews. 

WRONG. It isn't long before you get sniffed out.  You're slammed on the Master Debater's Threads, and Google Alerts show that you have been caught red-handed. 

Moral of the story. Don't write fake reviews.  Social media and crowd sourced content sites already spark controversy and debate.  Throw in examples of fake reviews written by business owners or their rivals, and everyone goes bananas.  Transparency in social media has been the norm with demand for honesty ever growing.  Users want to be able to put a face with a social media voice, and rest assured that conflicts of interests are revealed.  No one wants to be tricked.   

As a consumer, you do want to know which reviews are honest.  Here's some quick tips on sniffing them out.
  • Photo and name (Lack of online presence).  No photos and fake names are often hallmarks (though not always) of fake reviews.  Some fake reviewers have become savvy and will use a stock photo on the profile, and a generic screen name.  Stock photos (often flowers, trees, or puppies) are pretty easy to spot. Names are more difficult to gauge, but there are several ways to investigate. You can Google the screen name along with the city (example: Jennie C. Austin or MisoHungry Austin).  If nothing turns up, then it can get suspicious. 
    1. On occasion, the business owners and employees will use their real names and photos when reviewing their own businesses.  That's a dead give away as it is easy to check websites for business owner names or to find via  Sometimes, they will also write the review in first person.  "I worked really hard to open this restaurant" doesn't seem unbiased to me. 
  • Location listed on the profile.  If the location listed is not in same town that the businesses, look for other reviews in the same town.  Frequently, travelers review more than one business when visiting other cities.  If a person from Montana reviews just a single business in Austin, that would raise eyebrows.  It is unlikely (but not impossible) that an out-of-towner would review a business that isn't already well-known. 
  • Depth and breadth of reviews.  The number of reviews, types of businesses reviewed, and the details of the reviews are also very telling.  Lack of depth and breadth generally means that the person doesn't invest much time in the reviews or only selects particular businesses to review for whatever reason.  Those types of reviews are typically vague, lack descriptions, and are generic.  Here's some examples of vague reviews (names removed): 
    1. ********* has small plates packed with big flavor. Perfect place to meet for a drink and gently roll into dinner. Appreciated the guidance of the staff with perfect pairings of both beer and wine for our dishes. We ended up ordering the entire menu and nothing disappointed! Welcome to the neighborhood,*******!
    2. Wow, the ****** are amazing!!!!!
    3. I love all the*********, my favorite was the *******. I also had the ******* which was pure, literally....and wonderful on the recent cloudy cool days.  On a warmer day, the ****** is heaven on earth! What a novelty, can't believe I've never seen ******* anywhere else.
    4. This place is off the hizzy. HmmmMmmm I know what good is and this place is good, ya hear? 
  • Other contributions and timing of reviews.  If the reviews for the business were written before the business opened, you better believe that raises the red flag.  Also, contributing photos of "behind the scenes" or construction shots of a business is an indicator of conflict of interest with the business.  If you see the same shots uploaded to a review site that are on a photographer's portfolio, that is a dead give away.  *Anyone that has a relationship with the business or conflict of interest should either disclose it in a review or not review at all. 
  • Narrow range of businesses reviewed and aspects revealed.  This is a completely hypothetical example, though it has happened before with other suppliers.  A supplier naturally wants their customers to flourish, so they might be tempted to write reviews for their customers.  You might find a Yelp user that reviews only sushi restaurants, and the reviews praises only the freshness of the fish, how it is handled, and how it is prepared.  The reviewer's profile might say something about fish or link to a fish wholesaler website.  It is highly likely that the profile might belong to the restaurants' fish supplier.  That should be disclosed OR reviews of the restaurants in question should be avoided. 
    1. I can understand that a supplier really wants to let everyone know about their great ingredients and food, but the behavior should still be avoided. There are other ways to let people know about the ingredients. 
    2. Sometimes reviewers will outright say that they "are employees, and that's why they know the quality of the food is so great."  Oops.
    3. Sometimes the only other reviews are for other businesses in the same family (same owners).  Positive reviews of every single store in a chain is a little less than subtle.   
  • The same review (or clusters of reviews) appear on multiple websites, sometimes posted within minutes of each other.  That's waving the giant red flag of "someone on our marketing team was given the task of copying and pasting fake reviews to different websites this morning." 
  • A cluster of positive reviews pop up right after a single negative review.  Sometimes businesses have fake profiles in waiting.  If they receive a negative review, they immediately unleash several positive reviews.  It is pretty obvious when they are lined up chronologically.
Those are just some ways that fake reviewers are sniffed out.  The best defense against them is the time it takes to create believable fake profiles/online presence. 

*I've been going back and forth on whether or not I should write this.  I thought that in writing this, shady businesses owners might find tricks to appear less fake.  Honestly though, to create an online presence to does not escape the vigilant detection of savvy internet users and the likes of the Google machine would take hours upon hours.  I would guess that it would take no less than 50-100 hours per fraudulent online presence.  The likelihood of a business investing that many hours into a single fake review is extremely low.  Those types of businesses wouldn't even invest the time in reading this post. I don't think this blog post will affect these behaviors at all.


  1. Totally agree about fake reviews - hate'em!!

    But what about the hordes of hipsters who each suddenly contribute hundreds of reviews (often of near-identical length and corporate style) in cities that review sites have recently targeted?

    Not fake probably, but not really real reviews either. All review sites are skewed in some way, but people being paid to kickstart (and therefore skew) markets could be a contributory factor to the behaviors you describe.

  2. I'm not sure those hordes are necessarily hipsters (they could be though). I mostly see them as marketing interns or traditional marketing people who don't understand organic "press."

    I think that if they aren't completely real (from a real consumer), then they are fake. Just my opinion though.

  3. You don't mention paid reviews. These are pretty easy to spot - great English and all about the same length (150 - 200 words). Why? Because 'them's the rules' Do we really believe the guy/gal who wrote 1200 reviews in 3 months did it for the good of the community? Nope - he got paid by the site - they're sales leads now!