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.”
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