BrightLocal has been studying the impact of consumer reviews for the last nine years and, in that time, we’ve seen a huge spike in importance. In our first-ever Local Consumer Review Survey carried out in 2010, fewer than seven in 10 local consumers trusted reviews as much as a personal recommendation and just 70% of people had gone online to find a local business.

Fast-forward to 2017 and 97% of local consumers had looked online for local businesses while 9 in 10 trusted online reviews as much as personal recommendations. As reviews have become more ubiquitous, the need to remove fake reviews has soared in tandem.

While fake reviews are good for no-one in the long term, the growth of this dubious tactic is quite enlightening. The fact that huge amounts of time, energy and resources are being poured into fake review spamming is an indicator of just how valuable it can be to have a decent number of reviews.

The ongoing presence of fake reviews also tells us that reviews are a big part of the consumer decision-making process and underscores exactly how important they are for local SEO. As always in SEO, if someone’s trying to short-cut or cheat something, it tends to suggest that doing it properly is worth the effort. You can find our five-step guide to building your review profile the right way, here.

It’s fair to say that negative reviews are every business owner’s worst nightmare. When they’re fake, that feeling is magnified tenfold. Over and above reputational damage, fake reviews could – at least in the short term – give unscrupulous rivals a leg up.

There are plenty of reasons that you’ll want to remove fake reviews to protect your business, especially given how prolific they are becoming.

Let’s take a look at some eye-opening statistics that are sure to convince even the skeptics to take fake reviews seriously.

74% of consumers have read a fake review in the last year, though they’re not always easy to spot

According to BrightLocal research, 74% of consumers have read a fake review in the last year. Among 18-34-year-old consumers, the proportion is even higher, with 89% saying they’ve seen fake reviews (more on that shortly). Interestingly, this number has declined over the last 12 months as the proportion of consumers reading a fake review peaked at 79% in 2017.

The sheer volume of fake reviews being observed is obviously a cause for concern. It highlights how prevalent fake reviews now are, underscoring the importance both of being vigilant and of knowing how to get them removed.

The extent to which fake reviews have infiltrated this area of reputation management threatens the trustworthiness of reviews as a whole – should consumers be exposed to an increasing number of fake reviews, it’s perfectly feasible that we’ll soon begin to see confidence in peer-to-peer recommendations being eroded.

That being said, it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet. While fake reviews continue to emerge, it’s worth bearing in mind that the same Local Consumer Review Survey also shows that trust in reviews and recommendations is on the up.

89% of 18-34-year-olds have read a fake review in the last year

As we touched upon earlier, more 18-34-year-olds have read a fake review in the last year than consumers of any other demographic. While 89% of this younger age group say they have read a fake review in the last 12 months, only 74% of 35-54-year-olds have seen a fake review in the last year. This number drops to just 59% for consumers over the age of 54.

It’s clear that 18-34-year-olds find fake reviews much easier to spot. This could be because they have grown up online as digital natives and so are savvier when it comes to navigating the online landscape. It’s also possible that this constant exposure has given them digital street smarts to the extent that they’re naturally more suspicious or untrusting of user-generated content such as online reviews until given good reason to think otherwise.

This wariness should raise a few red flags for business owners. First and foremost, if your target demographic falls within the 18-34 age group, your immediate concern may (rightly) be that earning their trust and their dollars is going to be an uphill struggle. After all, when it’s universally understood that reviews are critical to the consumer purchase process, how do you bridge the gap when reviews are deemed to be fake so frequently?

A second worry is that this statistic suggests future generations are already being programmed to be wary of online reviews. If that’s the case, you’ll need to find new means of establishing trust with future customers.

In order to tackle fake reviews and instill confidence in those aged 18-34, it’s important to be proactive. Responding to reviews is a local SEO ranking factor but replying can also help to boost trust because it shows that you recognize and value feedback.

Reviews with repeated exclamation points are more likely to come from reviewers who have never made a purchase

According to research conducted by MIT, deceptive reviews (those submitted by consumers who actually haven’t made a purchase from the business being reviewed) have a tendency to use repeated exclamation points such as ‘!!’ and ‘!!!’ in the text of the review.

Use of exclamation points may not seem like a huge problem on the surface but delve a little deeper and it’s the connotation that becomes troubling. Multiple exclamation marks indicate a heightened emotion such as excitement or frustration. The use of multiple exclamation marks mimics colloquial syntax and grammar on social media and messaging apps. Add this to the indicated heightened emotions and there is the worrying prospect of consumers believing the fake review because it’s written in a style that the reader themselves also employs day to day.

Some business owners may not feel the impact of these deceptive reviews, given that their power to mislead consumers depends on the business’s own demographics. If your particular target market doesn’t employ similar styles on social media, you may not need to worry that your audience will be swayed.

Fake reviewers are much more likely to make specific requests to the seller or business

MIT researchers studying reviews without purchases discovered that those leaving a review without having made a purchase contain significantly more words and are much more likely to contain requests for the business such as ‘please’, ‘bring back’, ‘offer more’ and ‘go back to’.

This particular statistic can be quite problematic for those responsible for reputation management because it’s necessary to respond to detailed reviews – even if you’re sure it’s a fake review or that it has been left by someone who hasn’t made a purchase.

As review response speed and frequency is a local SEO ranking factor – and something that 89% of consumers will read – it’s still important to formulate a professional, courteous response. In his post, Google My Business gold product expert Ben Fisher recommends that you should still respond to show genuine consumers that you take all reviews seriously.

As with any response to a negative review, whether it’s true or false, it’s wise to demonstrate a willingness to fix the issue being raised. Invite the reviewer to get in touch privately, either by private message, email or telephone to resolve the issue. In the case of a fake review, you obviously won’t hear from the reviewer but publicly, you have demonstrated you care about service levels, product quality, opportunities for improvement and the customer experience.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimates fake reviews potentially influence £23bn of UK customer spending each year

The CMA has launched a program of work after a lengthy investigation into fake reviews determined that they potentially influence around £23 billion of UK consumer spending each year. It says millions of shoppers consult reviews before booking holidays and buying products or services but found that some companies were buying reviews or paying third party agencies to write fake reviews about products and services.

The 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations forbids this practice. The CMA says,

It is a banned practice to use editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer. It is also a banned practice to falsely claim or create the impression that a trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business or profession, or to falsely represent oneself as a consumer.

The CMA says that the use of fake reviews is a concern due to the volume of adults relying on reviews to make purchase decisions and the amount of money at stake. Fake reviews also pose additional problems in that they mislead consumers to spend money with a business or on a product they may not have otherwise chosen. This could mean other businesses are losing out on revenue they may have earnt, had it not been for the fake or misleading reviews.

For some sectors, fake positive or fake malicious reviews have a bigger impact – findings from the CMA suggest small businesses in the hospitality sector in particular are badly affected by fake reviews.

Cherry-picking or suppressing negative reviews can also mislead consumers and affect the ultimate purchase choice.

One in seven TripAdvisor reviews could be fake

An investigation by the consumer group, Which? concluded that up to one in seven TripAdvisor reviews are fake. Its research determined that several top-rated hotels in ten top tourist cities bore the hallmarks of fake reviews, with those reviews then boosting rankings and pushing the hotels up into the list of the best in that region.

TripAdvisor confirmed that a number of the hotels under suspicion had previously been warned about the use of fake reviews. Which? said,

The 15 that looked most blatantly suspicious included some of the best-rated hotels in the Middle East, four of the best-rated hotels in Las Vegas, and one of the hotels in Britain’s second-biggest hotel chain, Travelodge. When we reported them to TripAdvisor, it admitted that 14 of them – 93% – had been caught with dodgy reviews in the past year.

As we saw from the CMA findings, small hospitality businesses are especially vulnerable to fake reviews. The use of fake reviews to boost TripAdvisor placement means that not only are travelers at risk of disappointing trips when selecting accommodation based on five-star TripAdvisor reviews and city ratings, but independent hoteliers not partaking in fake reviews could be missing out on bookings and revenue, putting their businesses at risk.

Suspicious reviews can be reported to TripAdvisor – hallmarks of fake reviews include a large number of five-star reviews from users who have only submitted one review, and reviews from lots of users who haven’t reviewed other locations. Buying reviews, offering incentives for reviews or posting reviews for your own business are all against TripAdvisor review policies. Our guidelines for the top local review platforms including TripAdvisor can be found here.

61% of electronics reviews on Amazon are fake

Research carried out by The Washington Post has determined that 61% of reviews for electronics on Amazon are fake. The fake reviews affect categories such as wireless Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth speakers, though other categories such as testosterone pills and diet pills were also found to be impacted.

Analysis showed that 50.7% of reviews for the top 10 Bluetooth headphones were fake along with 55.6% of reviews for the top 10 weight loss tablets, 58.2% of Bluetooth speaker reviews and 67% of reviews for the leading testosterone products.

Amazon dominates the e-commerce industry, accounting for 54% of online sales and 5% of all US retail sales. It also handles 54% of product searches – making it even more powerful than Google for merchants. This proliferation of fake reviews is therefore all the more worrying, especially for retailers. The numbers alone suggest that there are serious benefits up for grabs from faking Amazon reviews.

As per the Washington Post analysis, the abundance of fake reviews artificially giving greater visibility to certain items without merit makes it very difficult to reach shoppers on Amazon without also engaging in fake reviews. One small business owner told The Washington Post fake reviews have a “devastating” effect because they “make it impossible to sell anything on Amazon if you play by the rules.”

While Amazon is primarily a B2C site, this underscores exactly what the business impact of fake reviews can be. With reviews important to Amazon rankings, having a process in place to acquire genuine reviews and build an authentic review profile is essential to prevent further decline in visibility.

55,000 fake reviews are generated on Facebook per month

It is estimated that more than 55,000 fake reviews are generated each month on Facebook. Which? research says that fake review groups are plentiful on Facebook and are responsible for generating over 3000 fake reviews for businesses each day. The consumer group says Facebook has ‘systematically’ failed to take action and that the platform is ‘plagued’ by groups that create and sell thousands of fake reviews every day.

These figures again underscore just how prolific fake reviews are becoming with industries and businesses springing up to capitalize on the trade of fake reviews. If this becomes more prolific, there is a real danger that trust in reviews will be lost. The issue for business owners is that with a whole industry being created around fake reviews, local businesses will almost certainly find themselves competing for business against rivals who have purchased their five-star ratings.

Conclusion

Consumer trust in online reviews is at an all-time high. They are a vital tool in the decision making process with a strong review profile having clear financial benefits for local businesses. Reviews are now so important, both to sales and to SEO, that fake reviews are becoming more prevalent. This raises several issues for businesses and consumers alike, with consumers increasingly likely to be faced with fake reviews and businesses increasingly being placed at a disadvantage if they don’t join unscrupulous competitors in buying or faking reviews to win visibility on review platforms and e-commerce sites.

However, as the research above shows, there is a concerted effort being made by consumer groups, journalists and government bodies to crack down on fake reviews, so any investment in fake reviews is likely to backfire sooner rather than later. Do the right thing: generate reviews in a natural way and you’ll be rewarded.