Astroturfing means masking a message so that it appears to be coming from an independent party when in fact it is coming from a very interested sponsor.  See Wikipedia for more information.

When I go online to look up something, say a restaurant, I always read the reviews.  Imagine my chagrin when I read the recent reports claiming that as many as one in seven of those reviews are fake.  At the end of September The New York Times reported  a major crackdown on ‘deceptive’ internet reviews by the New York Attorney General’s office.  Among the 19 companies cited were several that placed fraudulent reviews on their websites – Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.  We’ve been assuming that when we read a review, it’s legit.  It’s very unsettling to learn that many are fake. Did you know that there are businesses you can hire to post positive consumer reviews about your product or service?  One is called GettingBookReviews.com and it posts fake book reviews on bookstore websites.

Here are some tips on learning to spot which reviews are real and which are fake.

  • Real reviews give concrete descriptions about the product or service while fake ones contain many superlatives and are vague about the product or service in question.
  • A 100% approval rating with no mention of any downsides, or, conversely, a complete rejection with no mention of any positives is unrealistic and probably fake.  Real reviews, even those giving the highest rating, mention something that might have been better, or if they pan it they mention something that was positive.
  • If the reviewer’s name is a screen name of some kind, it might be fake.  Real reviews tend to give a legitimate first name at least.  Also look for reviewers with variations on the same name.
  • Check the post date.  If there were several similar 5 star ratings posted on or near the same date, they probably are illegitimate. If the review is of a product that has just been released, and the post date is either pre-release or very soon after, it is probably fake.
  • Fake reviews tend to read like advertisements, so pay attention to the tone.  If it sounds like a press release, comparing the product to competitors, mentioning its many features, raving about its superiority, it’s probably been placed by the product’s company.

The bottom line is that fake consumer reviews are placed by specialists and can be very difficult to spot. The safest option is to only use sites that verify their reviews, like Amazon, which confirms that the reviewer has actually purchased the product before posting the review. With any luck, this latest crackdown by the regulators will have some effect, as will the scrutiny that many websites are now giving the reviews they post.