A new restaurant opens nearby, and our favourite foodie blogger raves about it. We’re thinking of renovating the kitchen, so we seek out client feedback on local contractor websites. The performance run of a small indie play is held over because its word-of-mouth buzz goes viral on Twitter.
Thus lies the power of the good review. Likewise, if others trash the restaurant, the contractor or the play, we can be equally influenced to stay away, too.
Reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising, they offer some illusion of truth coming from real live people. But it turns out that a disturbing number of consumer reviews are bought and sold – just like everything else in marketing.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal here that early on in my journalism career, I did a lot of freelance work for a big tourism magazine that contracted with its advertisers to publish gushing ‘advertorial’ features about their businesses – even if they didn’t deserve the gush. I learned how to hold my nose and write an entire restaurant review that cleverly avoided much talk about the actual food or service. Remember that next time you read an eatery review that goes on and on (and on) about its decor or charming location.
Remember the bizarre case of the U.S. plastic surgery company called Lifestyle Lift? Owners allegedly ordered their employees in 32 centres to post fake positive reviews online about their $5,000 quickie facelift procedure. But when New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo stepped in after fraud allegations hit the fan, Lifestyle Lift was ordered to pay $300,000 in penalties (roughly equivalent to lunch money for the cosmetic surgeons).
The Attorney General’s office reported at the time that the Lifestyle Lift case is believed to be the first in the U.S. addressing a form of ‘stealth marketing’ called astroturfing.
Astroturfing generally refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization or company, but designed to mask their true origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behaviour. (The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look – sort of – like natural grass).
One entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site Fiverr, one of a multitude of similar pitches, posted: “For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business!” On another forum called Digital Point, a poster wrote: “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.”
We see this kind of review fakery everywhere – and it can work both ways. It’s widely believed that many negative reviews, for example, are posted on restaurant and hotel sites by business rivals.
In the U.K., the owner of the Drumnadrochit Hotel near Loch Ness admitted to posting a fake review of his own venue on the TripAdvisor website, calling it “outstanding” and “charming”. The hotel owner later told the British media:
“Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. But I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
Is submitting fake reviews a big deal, or not? For those of you who have ever bought a book based on those dust jacket raves, let’s consider astroturfing as it applies to book reviews.
As reported in the New York Times, books do not get to the best-seller list without public adulation, “lots and lots of it.”
Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor and the author of several traditionally published books on business psychology, told The Times:
“Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard. When people tell us we’re not as great as we thought we were, we don’t like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack.”
That’s where the book reviewer for hire comes in, because paid reviewers can guarantee five-star reviews. Enter Todd Rutherford.
Todd used to be part of the marketing department of a company that provided services to self-published writers – services that included persuading traditional media and blogs to review the books.
But it was uphill work, as The Times article explained:
“He could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement manifesto or one more homespun recollection of times gone by. There were not enough reviewers to go around.
Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling.”
In the fall of 2010, Todd Rutherford launched a website called Getting Book Reviews. At first, he advertised that he would review any book for $99. But some clients wanted many rave reviews submitted. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.
There were some immediate complaints in online forums that this service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author, but there were also orders for his reviews. As business picked up, Todd knew he couldn’t write all these reviews by himself. He advertised for freelancers on Craigslist, offering $15 per review; he received 75 responses within the first 24 hours. Before he knew it, he was making $28,000 a month. His site commissioned over 4,500 reviews during its brief existence.
Bing Liu is a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois in Chicago whose research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars:
“The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews. But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”
Mr. Liu told The Times that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are indeed fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the retailers/authors/owners themselves under pseudonyms (like the owner of the Drumnadrochit Hotel), or by customers who are offered a deal from a merchant for giving a good score, or by a hired third-party service like Todd Rutherford’s business.
Cornell researchers once tackled what they call this deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk (an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers) to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.
Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and intuitive healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers.
In many situations, according to The Times, these reviews may be supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.
But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.
One such client of Rutherford’s paid reviewers is a 48-year old computer programmer and author based in Illinois, who told The Times that so far, he has spent about $20,000 on fake reviews for his books. His goal, which he explained is “not yet accomplished, is to make that difficult leap from being an author to being a recognized author.”
One of his books, “The Minimum You Need to Know to Be an Open VMS Application Developer,” got 5 stars out of 5 on Barnes & Noble. Sounds like a “must-read!”
And what happened to Todd Rutherford and his fake review factory? After an unhappy Oregon author/client went very public with her dissatisfaction over his $99 reviews of her book, Mr. Rutherford is now selling R.V.’s in Oklahoma City.
Q: Can you trust the consumer reviews you read online?
CAROLYN’S DISCLAIMER: My new book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017) is now out. It is, frankly, the best book I’ve ever read!!! Honestly! You can read the first chapter here to see for yourself. Dr. Barbara Keddy, Professor Emerita at Dalhousie University in Halifax (real person, real university) was not paid to offer this wonderful review:
“This is an important book – in fact, indispensable for women and their families whose lives have been affected by heart disease.”
- Sock puppetry, astroturfing, and the marketing ‘shill’ game
- Why men buy, but women shop
- Paying celebrities to shill your drugs
- Make that a super-giant-jumbo popcorn for just 50 cents more!
- Stealth marketing: how Big Pharma tries to shape medical news
Truer than true! I’ve spent a decade or more exposing this type of mis-information to people at on-line health forums. Not that giving fake reviews for ‘stuff’ like tweezers or restaurants is acceptable but when it gets into the health field, I’m incensed!
The sites that rate doctors are not exempt. One doctor wrote his own ‘glowing’ reviews (that’s a plural) but finally had most of them removed. But not all.
After a while, I developed a sense of smell about fake reviews. And they do stink!
Interesting that you mention those Rate Your Doctor sites: it’s an increasingly common online topic for docs and health care professionals (how to counter these bad reviews from their patients). I’ve seen this advice online: “ask your staff/family members/best patients to write positive reviews.” One dentist even tried to impose a gag order on his patients to prevent bad reviews; the patient sued.
Well, maybe these fake reviews explain why, when I was shopping online for a good bubble wand, I searched and searched and finally, there it was! It looked like I finally found one! It had 4 100% glowing endorsements – all 5 star reviews with not a criticism in sight. I was happy with finding what I wanted (I babysit) and bought several of them. As I expected, the wand+special soap solution did indeed make gigantic bubbles – quite the show stoppers! However, about a third of the time, I couldn’t get any bubble at all to form.
I wrote my own review, mentioning my difficulty, but also saying it was worth the failures since the successes were so stunning. Secretly thought I must be doing something wrong! Dipping the wand into the dish of soap and waving it in the air – well, that’s so very complicated that it probably needs a college level course, but I actually did think it must be me, considering the reviews. No one mentioned any problems at all!
Reading your article, Carolyn, I suspect now that maybe they were fake reviews – or at least a little over the top regarding a very good but imperfect bubble wand. And maybe I’m not bubble-making impaired after all!
As a bit of optimism, so far as the morality of our society, I will add that when I shop online, I very often find not a single review. And when there are reviews, I find quite a variety off replies. I used to be really bummed out by that. Now I’ll take it as a happy sign that this is an honest seller!
Hi Bev – who knew there was so much that could go wrong with bubble wands?! Did they publish your review? You have just reminded me to post a (positive!) review myself – on the website of the caterers who did my daughter’s wedding last month. They were spectacular! I’ve told all our friends – but I should really leave an actual real-life review for them to post. Maybe if it’s too positive though, others might think it’s made up ? ! ? 😉
Yes, they did publish it. Verbatim. I had also ordered and tried out a different one that was a disaster. I wrote a scathing review of it and it was published as well. The package instructions also said that they would refund the return of any unopened, undamaged bubble wands. I wrote in my review that “they’d better refund the money I paid on the lousy wand I’d opened and the postage, too!”
Well, I called the seller and told the lady who answered the phone about how awful their product was. To my surprise she was very, very nice! She said, “Thank you so much for the feedback. That’s a new item we’re selling and we didn’t know how it would go. And yes, of course we’ll refund the wand you opened. Just put it in the box with the others. Tell me your email address and I’ll also send you a UPS label to put on the package.” Or words to that effect.
Her tone of voice was just so nice I felt kind of awful about the strong negative tone I’d written in my review. I could have said the same thing more nicely. However, I went back to that site and was able to add another review. I wrote about my experience with the store who was selling the wands – what she’d said about the opened wand and postage, and especially about her tone of voice and earnest wish to correct my problem re the costs I’d worried about. I was so glad I was at least able to add that.
And Carolyn – about the caterer you used for your daughter’s wedding – (I hope it was lovely and without any disasters or near disasters like we had!) – I think you should definitely write your review! You could write it in a way that makes it very personal and maybe that would help any suspicious reader believe these people are legitimately excellent. I think a job well done deserves your best effort in telling others about your experience.
And then there is the other side of the matter. Fake horrific reviews for sale. Often times a company will pay reviewers to trash their competition.
Sigh…. And these bad reviews are likely even more effective than fake good reviews!
And it is an inexpensive way to trash your competition. It is even worse if the reviewer was actually an employee of another company. There is no limit as to the amount of accounts one person can have on any given website, and the reviews can be either positive or negative.
BTW, the poster child for “positive reviews” like this, would be the “I Love Lucy” episode “Million Dollar Idea.” The episode involves Ethel Mertz dressing up as Mary Margaret McMertz on an afternoon TV Show and she uses an “unbiased” housewife from the audience, who is really Lucy, to first sell and then unsell salad dressing.
Thanks for reminding us about that I Love Lucy episode – a classic!
One more reason to subscribe to Consumer’s Report and Angie’s List when it comes to purchases! So far as I know, they are both reasonably honest. Angie’s List has a great potential not to be honest, but if you write a review, your name is accessible to the person/company being reviewed. I think this serves as a deterrent to lying and trashing someone who doesn’t merit that.
Two good recommendations, Bev! Thanks for these.