With more people shopping online during the pandemic, it's important to know how to spot unreliable product reviews.
A 2020 survey from PCMag of 1,000 U.S. shoppers found only 16% of respondents were "very confident" they could detect fake Amazon product reviews. In that same survey, 78% said product reviews play a big role in their purchases on Amazon.
It’s why tens of thousands of people log onto ReviewMeta.com each day, according to its founder, Tommy Noonan. It's a site that helps customers sort through Amazon product reviews, using 15 tests to examine reviews for each product and providing an "adjusted rating" based on those results.
“There are just some blatantly false reviews on their platform,” Noonan told Consumer 10.
Why is this happening? Noonan has some ideas.
"It’s so fiercely competitive that there’s so much money on the table to be that number one listing, to get someone to click 'add to cart,'" he said. "One of the ways you can do that - even though it’s not ethical - is to get the fake reviews."
"Fake reviews" can be anything from sellers paying customers to leave a five-star review, to people reviewing products they've never purchased, and sellers stealing reviews from other listings.
“You can have listings that have 10,000 reviews, 4.8 stars [but] none of them are for the product. They’re all combining the ratings from international Amazon sites," Noonan explained.
"The number of ratings that you see is skyrocketing so you’re seeing a lot more ratings for every product. The problem is those ratings might not even be for that actual product. You scroll through all the reviews and you find the international reviews talking about how much they like the gin even though you’re looking for a Wi-Fi repeater.”
On its website, Amazon says any attempt to manipulate reviews is strictly prohibited. A spokesperson for the company said they analyze reviews, take action against dishonest sellers and keep manufacturers honest. Still, experts tell Consumer 10 more could be done.
So, what red flags should you look for in an online product review?
"One of the things we look for, for example, is are all the reviews written on the same day, or are they written on days that are spread evenly over time,” Noonan said. “If everything is normal, you wouldn’t expect all the reviews to be written over one weekend, but that sometimes does happen. We also look at things like is the reviewer kind of regurgitating the same marketing jargon ... or is their language varied as you normally would expect it to be?"
Noonan said his team looks at verified purchases. The term “verified” means Amazon has a record of the customer buying the product. However, there can still be misleading reviews from verified shoppers. So, the group looks closely at the history of the reviewer.
"Are they all what we call 'easy graders,'" Noonan said. “Are they all posting five-star reviews on everything or are they kind of critical reviewers that are giving different ratings for different products? You can go to ReviewMeta and run any product through the algorithm and you can see the results of every single test right there."
Here are some tips to help you spot unreliable product reviews:
- Read reviews marked as "verified purchase"
- Read several reviews closely - Is the wording the same or unnatural?
- Make sure the reviews match the product you are trying to purchase - Are you trying to buy a phone charger, but the comments mention a hairbrush?
- Click on the name of the person leaving the review and look at their review history - Do they give five stars to every product?
- When in doubt, use a website that helps customers analyze product reviews
Noonan wanted to be clear that many reviews on Amazon are honest and legitimate. In fact, he shops on Amazon himself.
“My algorithm estimates around 7 to 11% of reviews on Amazon might be questionable. That's not 7 to 11% of all reviews,” he said. “It’s more like 50% of the reviews on one in 10 listings or so.”
A spokesperson for Amazon said their team is aware of what they call "abusive reviews" and actively fights against them.
"We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant,” an Amazon spokesperson told Consumer 10. “Our objective is to ensure customers see authentic and relevant reviews so they can make better-informed purchasing decisions. To do this, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10 million review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published. In addition, we continue to monitor all existing reviews for signs of abuse and quickly take action if we find an issue. We also proactively work with social media sites to report bad actors who are cultivating abusive reviews outside our store.”
Amazon encourages customers to report these reviews when they see them.
“We encourage customers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product to use the ‘report abuse’ link, available on each review so that we can investigate and take the appropriate actions,” the spokesperson said.
Noonan said another thing customers can do is return those products, even the cheap ones, that are not what was advertised.
“I’ll return an item that’s $7 even though it’s kind of a hassle to drop it off at the UPS store or whatever and repackage it,” he said. “It sends that message financially to Amazon and the seller that you will not tolerate inferior products and fake reviews.”