Malicious and fake reviews are more and more common these days. It’s estimated that about 4% of all online reviews are fake, and they can have a real economic impact — influencing around $791 billion annually on e-commerce spending in the U.S. alone.
On a local level, malicious and fake reviews can do real reputational harm and create a disconcerting fog around the legitimacy of a business. Consumers themselves are becoming much savvier at identifying fake reviews, and 71% say they’ll stop visiting a business if they find out it has fake or compensated online reviews. Just another reason you should NEVER buy reviews.
It’s within this ecosystem that local businesses — while trying to legitimately get Google reviews and other quality reviews — have to ensure they’re not accidentally encouraging fraudulent review practices and that they’re dealing appropriately with the reviews that could cause harm.
If your business has had a flurry of malicious or fake reviews lately, or you’re worried about getting your first one, read on for some important information and tips.
Where do fake reviews come from?
Many fake reviews come from review farms that get paid to encourage buyers to purchase a product and leave a 5-star review, after which the buyer gets a full refund — and the star rating of the product or business gets skewed. These groups advertise their services on popular social media sites, attracting unsuspecting businesses that think they’re engaging with a marketing firm.
Other groups use bots to auto-generate large numbers of malicious or fake reviews that look like they come from real people.
Fake reviews can also come from actual disgruntled individuals — sometimes a past employee with a bone to pick or a former customer who had a negative experience at one point and is out to smear the business.
Businesses themselves can influence reviews in a misleading way, even if that’s not their intention. For example, offering incentives is a valid way to encourage customers to leave any type of review — if growing the volume of reviews is the goal. But what can happen is that when a customer gets rewarded for writing a review, they may feel the need to write a positive one, even if they didn’t have a particularly positive experience.
If you offer incentives for reviews, it’s extremely important to be upfront with the customer that they’re under no obligation to leave a positive review, and that you sincerely want their honest feedback.
How to identify a fake review
If you suspect you’re getting fake reviews, here’s how you can more accurately identify them:
- Closely read the review’s content: Watch out for brief, overly enthusiastic reviews that don’t provide any concrete details about the product or service. Also, if the review clearly isn’t about your business — i.e., it attributes products or services to your company that you don’t sell, or it mentions other “facts” about your business that are verifiably untrue — the review is probably fake.
- Consider the writing style: Bots or overseas review farms often show their hand by using words, phrases, and grammar that aren’t typical of English speakers in the U.S. If anything seems off with certain words or phrases, take note.
- Check out the user’s image: Doing a reverse search of the user’s image can show you if the headshot is a stock image or otherwise comes from a source that has nothing to do with your industry, business, or typical customers. Bots often scrape headshots of random people they find on the internet.
- Look up the user’s name: Search the user’s name to see if you can find a local match, which indicates the person could be a real customer. If your search doesn’t turn up anything, or if the user is associated with a social media account that doesn’t appear to be real, this is a red flag. You can also check to see if the user has a history of posting negative reviews about other businesses or if they use the same language over and over again in multiple reviews — which suggests the work of bots.
- Notice the time span: Getting a whole bunch of reviews all at once is a sign that the reviews are probably coming from bots as well, which auto-generate tons of reviews and then spam review sites or business sites with them.
It’s important to understand that fake reviews can be either positive or negative. But it might be tempting to think that all negative reviews must be fake. Sure, disgruntled people or brazen competitors can leave malicious reviews on purpose to hurt your business too. We’ll discuss what you can do about that in greater detail below.
But sometimes a negative review is just a negative review. Be careful not to automatically associate “negative” with “fake” as it can lead you to ignore legitimate complaints and problems that need attention.
How to respond to malicious or fake reviews
Let’s be honest: negative reviews — especially the truly scathing ones — feel awful. But there’s a difference between a customer who’s really ticked off and wants the world to know, and someone who is trying to maliciously defame your business by saying something false about it with the express intent of causing harm.
In the first case, there’s not a lot you can do. The Consumer Review Fairness Act prevents businesses from taking legal action against customers who leave bad reviews. And you wouldn’t want to do that anyway, for the reasons we discussed above. Sometimes a bad review can be a blessing in disguise by drawing attention to an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.
The much better option is to reply to the review (with one caveat we’ll point out below). We always fall on the side of responding to every review — good, bad, or neutral — since it makes your business more credible and trustworthy and shows customers that you care about what they think.
But there may be a rare occasion when replying to a particularly negative review just ends up throwing gasoline on the fire and threatens escalation. If that happens, use your best judgment. If you feel the user isn’t open to your efforts to apologize, correct the situation, or otherwise engage with them, then leave it alone or offer to continue the discussion offline. Be courteous and helpful — don’t be rude or defensive — but also be cautious about engaging in a public back-and-forth that could cast further negative light on your business.
In the second case, if you think someone is truly defaming your business, use the following criteria to determine if libel (the written form of defamation) has occurred:
- A statement in the review is provably false; for example: the user accuses your business of charging them twice for a service.
- The statement is written as a fact, not an opinion or a criticism.
- The statement is published publicly — e.g., on a review site or your business site.
If the review appears to be libelous, you can potentially sue for defamation. But you’ll need to get legal advice about your particular complaint and who it is — whether it’s a business entity or an individual — that you can actually sue, which can sometimes be a murky question in a bot-filled world.
Legal action aside, what if you simply want to remove a review?
How to remove malicious or fake reviews
Removing a review isn’t a matter of snapping your fingers. And remember that most review sites don’t allow you to remove reviews you just don’t like.
That being said, review removal is possible and even necessary in some cases. Google and other popular review sites have specific rules around when reviews can be removed. Let’s take Google’s rules as a starting point.
- Civil discourse that includes harassment, hate speech, offensive content, and personal information
- Deceptive content that includes fake engagement, impersonation, misinformation, and misrepresentation
- Mature content that includes obscenity and profanity, sexually explicit content, adult-themed content, and violence and gore
- Regulated, dangerous, and illegal content that includes restricted and dangerous content, illegal content, child safety considerations, and terrorist content
- Off-topic content that impacts the Information quality such as advertising and solicitation, and gibberish and repetitive content
To report or remove a review that falls within Google’s prohibited or restricted content:
- Find your business profile on Google
- Click Reviews
- Find the review you want to report
- Click More > Report review
You can also do this from Google Maps:
- In the Google Maps app, click your profile picture or initial at top right to open your Business Profile
- Click Reviews
- Find the review or user you want to report
- Click More > Report review
- Or click the name of the user, then click More > Report profile
Another popular review site is Facebook, which also has rules, or “community standards,” about content that can be removed. These include content that:
- Deals in violence and criminal behavior
- Puts the safety of users at risk
- Qualifies as objectionable, such as hate speech, graphic violence, and sexual solicitation
- Doesn’t meet integrity and authenticity standards
To report or remove a review that doesn’t meet Facebook’s community standards, you can:
- Click “Reviews” underneath your business page’s cover photo
- Click “…” in the top right corner of the review you want to report
- Select “Report review”
- Select the category of why it violates community standards
- Follow the rest of the instructions you see on-screen
How to reduce or avoid malicious or fake reviews
Many review platforms — including the big ones outside of Google like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Trustpilot, and even Amazon — are acutely aware of the need to fight fraudulent reviews. While they begin to beef up their own practices for combating the problem, there are steps you can take as a business to avoid or at least reduce problematic reviews too — and some of them you may already be doing:
- Lead with transparency: Let your customers know how and from whom you collect reviews and whether you offer incentives. Consider adding a badge or some sort of indicator to reviews that come from verified customers.
- Monitor your reviews across the internet: Set up Google alerts so you know whenever a review gets posted somewhere about your business. That way you can identify fake reviews much faster and take action.
- Flag fake reviews ASAP: Though it can take time to report a review and hopefully get it removed, it’s still important to flag malicious or fake reviews right away and get the process going. There’s no guarantee the platform will remove a review, but it never hurts to ask and be persistent.
- Provide a great customer experience: When your customers are happy, they’re naturally going to leave positive reviews and assign high star ratings. Genuine positive reviews from real customers can help tamp down the noise of any fake reviews that slip through.
Get more genuine reviews with GatherUp
Building a body of quality reviews from verified customers is an important way to boost your local business in search rankings, increase conversions, and enhance your online reputation. And while getting a negative review here and there is common, getting positive reviews is what everyone is after. Just make sure the reviews are legit!
With GatherUp, you can automatically request reviews from your customers, so you can build up positivity in a genuine way. GatherUp also helps you:
- Manage and monitor reviews across Google and other third-party sites with alerts so you know what your customers are saying about you and can respond right away
- Reply to reviews more easily with AI-generated responses
- Turn customer feedback into valuable insights that help you improve the customer experience
To learn more about how GatherUp can support a trustworthy review strategy, contact us today to schedule a demo.