As of March 2021, the retail eCommerce industry was worth $400 million, according to SEMRush. The SEO company also reported that 66 percent of people do research online before making a big purchase, even if they buy it in-store. With this major shift in societies shopping habits, the question now must be asked: is the feedback we’re receiving to make purchasing decisions trustworthy?
Online shopping—specifically comparison shopping—would not be possible without search engines like Google. Search engine results pages (SERPs) with ranked results have become the modern marketplace and go-to tool for researching products or brands.
As a result of recent algorithm updates, online review sites and web forums take up a lot of real estate in Google SERPs for commerce-related queries. Whether you Google a specific brand, a general product type, the name of a local restaurant, or “primary care doctors near me,” you’ll likely see reviews on the first SERP.
Consumers read these reviews to get an idea of what they can expect from a company, product, or service. With many competing businesses offering similar experiences, reviews can make all the difference to potential customers engaged in comparison shopping.
Unfortunately, the significant influence that review sites wield has led disgruntled customers and competitors to use reviews as weapons. An increasingly common attack against brands involves publishing slanderous, fake reviews all over the web.
Multiple parties may even coordinate these attacks in a team effort to inflict maximum damage. In an online marketplace where comparison shopping drives competition, fake reviews can cause serious harm through lost sales and reputational strains.
Online reviews—and Google at large—have an immense impact on a business’s success or failure. As online shopping continues to grow in popularity, negative review content that ranks well in Google SERPs will become increasingly dangerous for brands.
How Consumers Use Reviews
As an online shopper, you don’t need to read reviews to find the lowest price; but you may need them to assess the quality of a product or service. Customer and client reviews allow prospective buyers to see past the marketing materials produced by the company and hear from actual consumers like themselves.
People turn to reviews to learn about the quality of a product and the quality of the business. For example, many people search reviews for insight into a company’s customer service experience.
Was the business pleasant to deal with? Does it listen to and address customer needs? Does it go above and beyond to make customers happy? A review score encompasses all of that, and studies show that most customers won’t consider engaging with a business with a star rating below 3.3.
That doesn’t mean businesses should feel comfortable with a 3.3 rating—the potential for lost sales goes up with each negative review. According to Qualtrics XM, if even one negative review turns up in search results, a business risks losing 22 percent of its potential customers. If three negative reviews appear, that number goes up to 59.2 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made online reviews even more essential, as consumer spending at online retailers grew 44 percent from 2019 to 2020. The more people shop online for everyday items, the more they rely on reviews to affirm their choices.
Why Do Reviews Rank Well?
Recent changes to Google’s search ranking algorithms are what elevated the importance of online reviews.
The impact of online reviews grew dramatically following a Google algorithm change known as the “Medic Update.” This core update brought with it a greater focus on expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) as quality guidelines (and, in turn, ranking factors). These factors have even more weight for sites that publish content related to personal health and finances.
Given that review sites help people decide how to spend their money, they fall under a special category called “YMYL” (your money, your life). YMYL can include content about small purchases (including reviews) and lifestyle changes, but it also encompasses content about life-altering topics and decisions. Review sites for services like medical care, legal counsel, and financial advising fall wholly into this category.
Google aims to make YMYL sites easy for searchers to find, explaining why reviews and review platforms rank so high in the SERPs.
The Fake Review Crisis
While useful for comparison shopping, Google giving this level of authority to review sites creates other problems. Reviews can determine the success or failure of a business, yet Google and many review sites don’t have the infrastructure to distinguish fake reviews from genuine opinions.
The spread of fake reviews is a growing crisis worldwide, driven by the ease in which individuals and competitors can smear a brand’s reputation. Despite consumers’ growing use of review sites, few policies exist for moderating them. Bad actors continue to manipulate review sites, causing measurable damage.
Even Amazon has lost control of the reviews on its platform, allowing fake submissions to harm brands and hoodwink customers at alarming rates. A recent investigation found as many as 35 percent of Amazon’s reviews come from inauthentic sources—either written by people who were not actual customers or automatically generated by bots.
If a company like Amazon can fall victim to the fake review crisis, all brands should consider themselves at risk. This threat means businesses have to remain in constant defense mode to protect their reputation and sales.
The first step to building a defense against fake reviews is knowing how to identify them and differentiate them from negative but honest reviews. While fake and negative reviews can have the same damaging effects, you’ll need to respond to them with different strategies.
Identifying Fake Reviews
No customer reviews should go ignored. Brands should address negative but genuine reviews and take immediate action if they suspect a review is inauthentic. But how can companies tell the difference? Start with these tips:
- Take reviews with a grain of salt when they consist of only a star rating and no written content.
- Look up the reviewer’s name in a client database. Zero history of working together in the past could indicate a fake review.
- Pay attention to mentions of specific people they dealt with and situations they had with a product or service. Lack of specifics potentially indicates a fake review.
- An angry or defamatory review with no context likely didn’t come from a real customer.
- Multiple reviews with the same text word-for-word may signal a coordinated attack against a brand.
- Check the reviewer’s profile and look for suspicious signs such as minimal account information, no previous reviews, or an excessive amount of previous reviews.
Dealing With Fake Reviews
Once you identify a fake review, what should you do next?
Stay level-headed. You want to approach inauthentic reviews with caution, as responding to them inappropriately can cause further damage.
Remember, businesses shouldn’t deal with a suspicious review the same way they would to a negative review from a genuine customer.
As stated earlier, no reviews should go ignored. Engaging with constructive criticism lets brands issue a response offering to make the experience right, thereby building trust with future customers. But fake reviews don’t deserve the same consideration.
Before engaging with suspected fake reviews, businesses should consider who would slander their brand.
Given the unbridled nature of review sites and Google’s treatment of YMYL content, anyone could level an attack on your brand. But who would have the motivation to post malicious reviews? If you’re dealing with a large-scale attack, consider who would have the time and resources to go after your business.
Possible culprits include competitors and individuals with a vendetta against a business or someone who works there. Rather than stooping to their level with more negativity, businesses should deal with these reviews by having them removed through the appropriate channels.
It’s often a rigorous process, but most review sites have some sort of system for reporting reviews. You may be able to flag the post or reach out to the platform directly. To get a review removed successfully, businesses have to plead their case with supporting evidence of the review’s inauthenticity.
While review sites make it easy to submit reviews, they make it a hassle to get content removed. Petitioning for content removal takes time and energy, and you have to know how to present your case to increase the odds that the site will take action.
Reputation management companies specialize in getting fake reviews removed from the web, helping clients gain back control of their online narratives.
Following the removal of fraudulent reviews, reputation management companies keep their clients up-to-date on incoming online reviews. They use monitoring strategies to actively assess your brand’s reviews and alert you whenever negative or potentially fake content is published. That way, you can act fast, diverting any further issues.
The Burden of Truth
Knowing how to manage reviews—real and fake—is integral to maintaining your business’s online reputation. With review monitoring and taking swift action, you can ensure that potential customers only see reviews that accurately represent your brand, products, or services.
Unfortunately, the ease with which competitors or other malicious actors can manipulate a brand’s online reputation creates stress for business owners who have enough on their plate with day-to-day operations. Due to the exponential growth of comparison shopping and the authority Google gives reviews sites, fake reviews can have real-life consequences for businesses, their owners, and employees.
Companies can’t ignore fake reviews, but they also can’t throw gasoline on the fire by mishandling the situation. In most situations, the best way to deal with a fake review is to prove it’s inauthentic and have it removed.
Content removal requires hard work, and the burden of proof rests on the business owner. Fortunately, a reputation management service can help shoulder that burden. Working with a reputation management company gives your business access to professionals with years of experience and a proven track record for having damaging content removed from review sites and the top of Google SERPs.