In January this year, Which? went undercover and signed up to different companies who were offering review manipulation services. They wanted to see if there were really businesses out there purchasing false Google reviews to boost their online reputation.
They found multiple sites offering Google reviews for sale, and entire networks of fake reviewers willing to leave those reviews! You can read their full investigation here.
How Important are Google Reviews?
This is the question Which? looked to answer when they surveyed 2,072 adults in June 2020 to find out where they look for customer reviews. 46% of the customers surveyed said that they had read Google reviews in the 12 months prior to the survey taking place.
The issues surrounding false Google reviews were also flagged as a huge problem in the minds of businesses back in 2019, when a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that a fifth of small firms (21%) said that malicious or fake reviews were the most common challenge they faced when trading over online platforms.
With this in mind, the investigation into the purchasing of fake Google reviews was more important than ever!
What did They Find?
Which? started the investigation by creating their own fake Google My Business listing and buying 20 Google reviews for £108 from a site called Reviewr. They found that they were able to dictate the rating of each review and the frequency of which they were left. They were also able to provide the exact wording they wanted to use for each review!
When the reviews went live, one was deleted but the account manager at Reviewr assured them that this was something called ‘review filtering’ and that they would slow down the rate of the reviews being posted.
They also began to notice that the accounts being used to leave the reviews also left similar reviews for the same selection of businesses across the country. This led them to nearly 50 businesses that seemed to have also paid for their reviews!
The Risk of Fake Reviews
One of the businesses identified by the investigation as having a large number of reviews left by the same users who were leaving the fake reviews was a stockbroker.
The Which? team looked back at that business’ review history and found that they had received a lot of negative reviews in 2020 with some accusations of poor customer service. In the four months before the Which? investigation the business gained 30 five-star reviews! Many of those reviews were left by users identified as part of the group leaving similar reviews for the same group of businesses – including one user who had also reviewed the false listing created for the investigation.
Which? shared the results of their investigation with Google, and their fake business listing was then shut down. Google said that the issue of paid fake reviews is a persistent threat and that their automated detection systems work to scan and remove content violating their policies (this is also applied to reviews before they’re even published).
Google did admit that the automated system wasn’t able to pick up every single fake review, and they do have a team of analysts who audit the reviews left for businesses to pick up any that have not been removed.
A Google spokesperson said: ‘We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google. 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. When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.’
To read the full investigation by Which?, please click here.