Businesses paying for fake Google reviews
Which? created its own fake Google business listing, and then bought 20 Google reviews from a review site it had found called Reviewr. It was able to choose the star rating for each review, as well as how frequently it wanted them to be posted. The Which? team was even able to provide the exact wording it wanted for each of the reviews, which then began appearing over the next week from a variety of Google accounts.
These accounts were found to have been used to plant fake reviews at scale, reviewing the same selection of businesses. Which? linked together 45 different businesses that shared at least three of these ‘reviewer’ accounts in common, which included a stockbroker in Canary Wharf, a solicitors firm in Liverpool and a dentist in Greater Manchester.
Several of the ‘reviewer’ accounts had left ratings of at least 15 businesses, with all of them rating an SEO advisory business in Edinburgh and a psychic in London as five stars, a fact that Which? pointed out was “an unlikely coincidence”.
Which? pointed out that these fake reviews could be misleading consumers to the point that they suffer serious financial risk.
It pointed to the example of the Canary Wharf stockbroker, which had received a raft of negative reviews over a six-month period in 2020, with many of them warning the stockbroker delivered “shockingly poor customer service”. One reviewer described the firm as the worst broker they had ever dealt with, while another claimed to have lost £27,000 because the broker had acted against his wishes.
However, a few months before Which? began its investigation a raft of five-star reviews were left for the business in quick succession, boosting its overall rating.
Clearly, if these positive reviews are based on invented experiences, then there is a very real danger that some consumers could end up using a service that perhaps isn’t the best off the back of imaginary scenarios.
An industry of fake reviews
The Which? investigation uncovered a host of other review sites which appeared to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk.
Google said that it has clear policies which prohibit this sort of activity, and mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, but the investigation suggests that they are not working.
What are the regulators doing?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) last year launched its own investigation into the issue of fake reviews, focusing on a host of unnamed big websites and whether they are doing enough to detect, investigate and respond to fake and misleading websites.
As Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said when launching the investigation: “If someone is persuaded to buy something after reading a fake or misleading review, they could end up wasting their money on a product or service that wasn’t what they wanted.”
Which? called on the CMA to also take action to stop sites that are trading these fake reviews, arguing it is likely in breach of consumer law.
Natalie Hitchins, head of home products and services at Which?, said that businesses were “exploiting flaws” in Google’s system to rise up the rating ranks, putting honest businesses on the back foot.
She continued: “The regulator must stamp out this harmful behaviour and hold sites to account if they fail to protect their users, otherwise the government must urgently increase websites’ legal responsibilities for misleading content on their platforms.
“Google, and other sites, must clamp down on and prevent these manipulative practices to ensure that consumers can trust the reviews that they read.”