New York regulators announced today that nineteen companies would be fined $350,000 for paying for fake reviews on sites like Yelp. How'd they catch them? Regulators posed as employees at a struggling Brooklyn yogurt shop, and then called SEO firms to ask them to astroturf on their behalf. But even if every shady operator on the internet is sufficiently frightened by these fines, it's unlikely to stop the tide of fake reviews.
A study called Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail, explains why. Professors Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester found that many of the fake reviews we see online aren't from the kinds of groups that got busted today:
...the manipulation of product reviews is not limited to strategic behavior by competing firms. Instead, the phenomenon may be far more prevalent than previously thought."
Instead, many of the fake reviews are negative ones, written by ordinary consumers who haven't been hired by anyone. Unlike their paid counterparts, the volunteer corps of fake reviewers tends to be overwhelmingly negative. So why do they do it? The researchers theorize about the dark, dark psychology of an volunteer fake reviewer:
1) Some fake reviewers are consumers who've had a bad experience with the company, and they want to punish them by hitting them with negative reviews over and over again.
2) Some fake reviewers consider themselves "unofficial brand managers." Imagine, if you can, an Apple fan so in love with Apple that they'll gush over the new iPhone before they've purchased it. Or bash the new Samsung Galaxy, sight unseen.
3) Some fake reviewers are just after social status. They want the influence and gravitas that comes with being a prolific online product reviewer. If this seems crazy, think about the incentive system that makes anyone post a bunch of reviews online, even a real one. There's some psychic benefit you get from voicing your opinion and knowing it will have a real, if slight, impact. Posting a fake review gives you that little dopamine hit without the time and money suck of actually using the product.
Lastly, as part of their study, Anderson and Simester developed a profile of how a fake review generally differs from a real one. It's worth reading, since we'll likely be stuck with this scourge anyway:
Perhaps the strongest cue associated with deception is the number of words: deceptive messages tend to be longer. They are also more likely to contain details unrelated to the product (“I also remember when everything was made in America”) and these details often mention the reviewer’s family (“My dad used to take me when we were young to the original store down the hill”). Other indicators of deception include the use of shorter words and multiple exclamation points.