Booming industry for fake Google reviews has 'evaded detection'

Lucy Harley-McKeown
·4 min read
İstanbul, Turkey - July 15, 2011: Hand holding and touching digital tablet with Google+ site. Google+ is a social networking website, owned by Google. The digital tablet is an iPad.
Researchers bought 20 Google reviews for £108 ($150) from one of the review sites it uncovered, easily found through a quick Google search, called Reviewr. Photo: Getty

A booming industry has emerged in fake Google (GOOGL) reviews, with businesses across the UK paying to artificially boost their ratings online.

According to an investigation by consumer group Which?, fake reviewers were employing similar manipulative tactics for a wide range of businesses – from a stockbroker in Canary Wharf to a bakery in Edinburgh.

To uncover this, Which? went undercover and signed up to several firms offering review manipulation services — including the posting of fake five star reviews — to business listings on Google.

Researchers bought 20 Google reviews for £108 ($150) from one of the review sites it uncovered, easily found through a quick Google search, called Reviewr.

Reviewr says "buying Google reviews is undoubtedly a smart choice" as "89% of consumers trust online Google reviews as much as personal recommendations." It claims to offer "100% permanent reviews" for the platform that won’t be deleted.

One of the reviews posted by the platform was subsequently deleted, so Which? queried it with its Reviewr account manager and was told that sometimes they see “review filtering.” If that happens, the company said it slows down the rate of posting reviews so that they “stick.”

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When Which? reached out to Reviewr it initially responded but did not provide a comment.

After further digging into the profiles of these reviewers, Which? then found that many of the Google accounts used to plant its fake reviews had infiltrated Google reviews at scale – reviewing the same selection of businesses all around the country.

Which? linked together 45 businesses that had at least three ‘reviewers’ in common - including a stockbroker in Canary Wharf, a solicitors firm in Liverpool, a dentist in Greater Manchester, a London estate agent and a bakery in Edinburgh – suggesting that each of these businesses paid the same review trading company to post these glowing appraisals.

During its investigation, Which? also uncovered four other review sites, AppSally, BuyServiceUSA, DripFeedReviews and Link Building Services, that appeared to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk. They were all easily found in Google search results for the search term “Buy Google reviews”.

Which? said the findings have exposed concerning gaps in Google’s monitoring of its review platform, leaving people at risk of being misled into using local businesses that appear to have received glowing endorsements, but could in reality be substandard or in one case potentially even pose a serious financial risk to consumers.

Although Google says it has clear policies that prohibit this type of activity, and mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, based on its findings, Which? has concerns that its approach is not effective enough. Online platforms that host reviews, including Google, must do more to proactively prevent fake reviews from infiltrating their sites.

A Google spokesperson said: “Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology.

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"When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.”

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently investigating the problem of fake reviews. To protect consumers from being misled, the consumer champion is calling on the regulator to take strong action against sites that host reviews if it finds that they are failing to prevent fake reviews flooding their platforms.

BuyServiceUSA told Which?: "We're helping the new business to get some reviews."

It said that it’s not in breach of any terms and conditions and that its marketing service (local SEO) actually increases traffic and helps businesses to get potential customers.

When Which? approached Link Building Services, it deleted the page apparently offering Google reviews for sale and denied providing fake review services. When presented with a screenshot of the page, the firm suggested the lack of a listed price as evidence that it was not selling fake reviews.

At the time of publication, neither AppSally or DripFeedReviews had responded to Which? requests for comment.

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