The findings from Which? have revealed the ease with which fake reviews can be acquired by businesses online to take advantage of gaps and discrepancies in Google’s monitoring of its review platform.
Among those found to have allegedly fake reviews listed on their Google results were an Edinburgh-based bakery, an SEO advisory firm also based in Edinburgh and a Glasgow-based electric gate installation firm.
The unnamed Scottish businesses are just a sample of a much larger set found by Which? to have suspicious reviews from accounts which had also reviewed many of the same other businesses, or businesses hundreds of miles away, with similarly positive ratings and reviews left in quick succession.
In setting up a fake Google business listing named ‘Five Star Reviews’, Which?’s researchers were able to buy 20 Google reviews for £108 from a site called Reviewr - found quickly in Google search results.
Reviewr advertises purchasable, false Google reviews as ‘undoubtedly a smart choice’ given ‘89% of customers trust online Google reviews as much as personal recommendations’. The review site also claimed that its ‘100% permanent reviews’ would not be easily detected or deleted.
Which?’s investigation saw researchers be able to set the star ratings and wording of its fake reviews when buying these on Reviewr. Fake reviews containing such wording and ratings set for Which?’s made-up business were then left by a number of Google accounts over the following days. After one of these reviews was deleted, Reviewr told Which?’s undercover researchers that they would slow down the rate of posting reviews to make them ‘stick’ and appear more realistic.
Further investigation also showed that many of the Google accounts leaving such reviews had in fact left these across plenty of other businesses, with Which? linking together 45 different businesses that had at least three of the same ‘reviewers’.
The findings shine a harsh light on the proliferation of fake online reviews that risk misleading customers about the quality and credibility of the businesses now viewed mostly online in lockdown. Given that many consumers now look to such reviews as an indication of legitimacy and quality, Which?’s investigation highlights how fake positive reviews can often overshadow genuine reviews about bad practice or poor service.
Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?, said:
“Businesses exploiting flaws in Google’s review system to rise up the ranks are putting honest businesses on the back foot and leaving consumers at risk of being misled.
“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.”
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