New York Times: Fake Reviews A Growing Trend

Martin Brinkmann
Aug 20, 2011

Back in 2010 I wrote a piece about reviews on software download sites. In it I discovered that some developers manipulated the public perception of their program by adding fake reviews, usually in the form of a five-star rating for their programs. The problem here was that some developers went overboard with the fake reviews so that their lesser known program received the same amount or even more reviews than a very popular software on the same portal. Some reviews also did not add up, especially when low and high reviews where compared with each other.

The New York Times yesterday reported that fake reviews are a growing trend. The story concentrates on tourism and product review sites.

Product owners, marketing agencies or individuals can buy reviews online for a small amount of money. If you visit Fiverr for instance, you will notice that you can buy positive reviews for $5 on almost every site imaginable. But Fiverr ist just one of the sites where you find people willing to put up fake reviews on websites.

The ingenious aspect of this is that hiring people to post fake reviews bypasses most of the site's fake detection security. If you were to do it on your own, you would connect with certain characteristics like the computer's IP address, browser version or operating system which might be used to identify manipulation, even if proxy servers or virtual private network connections were used. A single cookie could be enough for that.

But with unique users from all over the world, it is not possible to use hard facts to identify fraud.

Cornell researchers recently published a paper about fake review detection. The algorithmic approach looks for strong and slight deceptive indicators in a review to determine whether it is fake or not. Indicators on the other hand are not proof, and it will happen that the algorithm detects legit reviews as fake and vice verse.

Some sites could implement a better procedure to avoid the majority of fake reviews. Amazon for instance could only allow reviews by users who have purchased the product on their site. While that would certainly reduce the number of reviews on site, it would eliminate the majority of fake reviews as well.

Businesses who use these marketing techniques will adapt. They would simply have to do some initial teaching, or review writing of their own, to deceive the algorithm.

One element that has not been mentioned yet, and that has not been addressed in the paper, is the option to write fake reviews with a less than perfect rating. I personally read the negative reviews first on most sites to get an understanding of what's wrong with a product. Some complaints here are less serious than others. A picky user might complain that the product arrived late, or that the breakfast buffet at the hotel did not have enough carrots on one day. Those might be serious issues for them, but they might not be serious to the majority of potential customers.

My guess is that we will see better fake reviews in the coming years. We will see fake reviews with less-than-perfect ratings, and fake reviews that use the findings of the research paper to avoid detection.

Your take on fake reviews on the Internet? Let me know in the comments.


Tutorials & Tips

Previous Post: «
Next Post: «


  1. June said on August 16, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Fake reviews are an effective ways, this seller has a few popular items on Amazon, one common point, they all become popular because of massive numbers of fake reviews. They not only manufactured fake reviews, but also used fake reviews to attack competitors.

    All documented and exposed:

    But they are still going strong, Amazon has failed to stop them.

  2. Mike said on August 28, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I know a guy who runs some large business directory websites. He pays someone to add fake reviews, and to take off real negative views.

    This is because of the following:
    1) He has received letters from company lawyers when bad reviews appeared.
    2) He makes money from listings so he can’t afford to have businesses remove themselves from his sites.

  3. Roman ShaRP said on August 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    I rather don’t care. I do prefer my own judgment and recommendations from people I trust.

    1. Jojo said on August 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm

      What if no one you know has a recommendation? And what would your judgment be based on? Company marketing materials?

      1. Martin Brinkmann said on August 22, 2011 at 8:47 am

        Good question. I personally like to use reviews. But instead of looking just one place, I try to find reviews on blogs and sites, and on product sites, and forums as well as other places. I tend to look at the criticism more than I look at the praise, as I feel that this is usually going to help me more make my decision. Not all criticism is valid though, and I know that there are situations where negative reviews have been placed from users who did not even play the game (think of all the anti-steam game reviews on Amazon, for a game that has not been released yet as an example).

  4. Jack said on August 20, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    As others suggest, about the only surprising thing here is that anyone is surprised.

    I’ve read ‘reviews’ that were ludicrous in their transparency, and I’m always suitably suspicious about all the rest. And it probably works both ways – while I’ve no way to be sure, I’ve always assumed that bad reviews might originate with competitors. I don’t even take feedback in Amazon or eBay all that seriously – the ways to bend those results are legion.

    Even reviews that seem genuine are often only fit to be dismissed – there are some strange people in this world. Even in official magazine product reviews I’ve seen rubbish like “We give this camera 9/10 – we had to deduct a point because it doesn’t take very good pictures.” Say what?!!

    It’s caveat emptor time of course – just like it’s always been, even before the internet. In my boyhood some 60 years ago, people used to clamour in front of a street market stall for “more of the marvellous bargain they’d bought yesterday”. Most sensible people knew perfectly well they were shills of course. The whole process was cheerfully accepted as a form of entertainment.

  5. EuroScept1C said on August 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Also, speaking for better fake reviews, have you notice an another method?

    Some guys appear in, say, a Fx article and they write such fake comments:

    “yes, Fx is OK, but I will keep using “avant browser” because Fx has memory problems or the Add-ons break in every version change while Avant is perfect, doesn’t have any problem”

    They choose some old cliches or unsubstantiated reasons to appear the product they try to advertise with this sneaky way, perfect…


  6. EuroScept1C said on August 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Before I read about, I thought it was common sense… Always I’m very suspicious. Also, not only those little reviews, but, I’m suspicious too, about the extended reviews when coming from well known “trusted” websites.

    It’s hard nowadays to find a really independent website, which is willing to write exactly what it things about a product, every time, for every product.

  7. Crodol said on August 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I am actually suprised how well the review system works, given that there are so many idiots and money hungry people out there…

    With regards to reviews, sometimes I was able to spot fake reviews by checking “other reviews by the user xyz” or by checking the dates on the reviews and if there are a total of 5 and all were given on the same day then there probably some friends doing a favour…

  8. Jojo said on August 20, 2011 at 9:12 am

    My take: the quest for money corrupts absolutely. I guess no one should be surprised that there are many people who have no integrity or are willing to trade what little they do have for a payoff.

    Sadly, they don’t realize that they are also hurting themselves. For when they go to purchase a service/product, they will not be able to benefit themselves because of the compromised reviews. Figuratively speaking, they have poked their own eyes out.

    Who wins? The seller of poor products does as they reduce everyone down to the lowest denominator.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on August 20, 2011 at 9:31 am

      It is not necessarily a weak product that is promoted this way. Some companies use these strategies to make their products appear more prominently. Most, if not all, product review sites offer to sort by popularity or rating.

Leave a Reply

Check the box to consent to your data being stored in line with the guidelines set out in our privacy policy

We love comments and welcome thoughtful and civilized discussion. Rudeness and personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please stay on-topic.
Please note that your comment may not appear immediately after you post it.