This week, the New York Attorney General’s office announced that nineteen companies would be fined $350,000 for paying for fake reviews on sites like Yelp. But a study that came out earlier this year says that many fake online reviews, including the most negative ones, are often written by a brand's biggest fans. Bob talks to Duncan Simester, one of the authors of the study and a professor at MIT, about why a brand's fans would leave it bad reviews.
BOB GARFIELD:On Monday, the New York Attorney General's Office announced that 19 companies would be fined $350,000 for paying for fake reviews on sites like Yelp. The regulators say they caught the fraudsters by posing as a struggling Brooklyn yogurt shop and asking search engine optimization companies to carpet bomb review sites on its behalf. But, according to a study that came out this May, many fake reviewers online are not paid by anyone. For reasons best known to themselves, they simply go online to comment about products they have never used, and often are none too generous. Duncan Simester, a professor of marketing at MIT's Sloan School of Management, was co-author of the study. Duncan, welcome to On the Media.
DUNCAN SIMESTER:Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Now, how did you put your study together?
DUNCAN SIMESTER:We worked with a very large private label apparel company. We obtained all the data describing all their reviews and also all of their transaction data, so we could match whether a customer who was writing a review had actually purchased the item they were reviewing. So we compared the reviews where there was a matching transaction with the reviews where the customer hadn’t purchased the item prior to writing the reviews. And what did we find? Well, interestingly, the reviews without prior transactions were significantly more negative.
There are also, you know, big differences in the text itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, if you haven’t purchased the item you can’t describe the fit or the feel -
- of the products.[LAUGHS] They also were full of cues that we would normally, in the psycholinguistics literature - that we associate with deception.
BOB GARFIELD:For example? DUNCAN SIMESTER:[LAUGHS] It turns out that when we’re trying to deceive we, we feel like we have to be elaborate than we would normally be. So a pretty good cue of deception is thatpeople use a lot of words in their reviews. And, because that takes so much effort, they also tend to use shorter words. So these reviews were not only more negative but the text of them was, was significantly different, as well.
BOB GARFIELD:And, in addition to wordiness, contains some just irrelevancies?
DUNCAN SIMESTER:Well, it’s hard to talk about a product that you haven’t purchased, so the reviewers will start talking about things that are really unrelated to the product. You know, they’ll start talking about their family and –
- Father first sort of took them to the store down the road. So we see a lot of discussion in there that really isn’t very helpful.
BOB GARFIELD:I kind of get why people will fake a resume or tell war stories or describe the fish that got away. Have you any insight into why people would go online to review a product that they’ve never purchased?
DUNCAN SIMESTER:Our first thought was maybe these are angry customers. Maybe they’ve had a bad service experience and this is some form of retribution. And that turns out not to be the case. We think what’s more likely is they actually like the company so much that they’re self-appointing themselves as brand managers. And so, when they see the firm selling a product that’s new or different or they didn’t expect to see, they want to give feedback to the firm, and, and a very convenient way to give feedback is to use this review mechanism.
BOB GARFIELD:That sounds – what do you call it – insane! [LAUGHING]
DUNCAN SIMESTER:[LAUGHS] Yeah. You know, there’s an old phrase which is, you know, your best friends are your worst critics. And I think there’s a little bit of this going on. I think it’s also true that we have to remember how few customers actually write reviews. So, you know, out of a thousand customers, only about 15 write reviews, and about one of those 15 will write these, these fake reviews. But, the reviews written by those 15 customers are very influential for the other 985 customers. The fact that the reviews without transactions are more negative lowers revenue for the items by about 1 to 2 percent. And if you’re thinking 1 to 2 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but for these retailers – and this is a big deal – taking 1 to 2 percent off their topline is – you know, has an important impact on them.
BOB GARFIELD:So is it vandalism?
DUNCAN SIMESTER:I actually think that a lot of the reviewers who are doing this really – they think they’ve got the best interest of the company at heart, ironically. They’re very good customers of these firms, or at least of this firm, and I think they’re actually just trying to protect the brand. Ironically, they’re protecting the brand in precisely the wrong way, by offering feedback to the company in a very public forum, which is damaging the brand. But if you look at the customers and you look at their purchasing behavior, they’re great customers, just bad reviewers.
BOB GARFIELD:Well then, it would appear that even if the Attorney General of New York State is successful in his case and somehow eradicates all paid sock puppets from review boards of all retailers, the majority of, of fake reviews still won't disappear from the face of the earth.
DUNCAN SIMESTER:That is what probably concerned us the most about the, the results of our study. It’s perhaps not surprising to us that firms are going to behave strategically to boost their own ratings or lower the ratings of their competitors, but these are customers doing this for no apparent financial reason. And so, it suggests that this may be a lot more prevalent than we would otherwise expect.
BOB GARFIELD:All right. Duncan, thank you so much.
DUNCAN SIMESTER:A pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:Duncan Simester is a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.