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Should you trust online product reviews? How you can spot fake ones

While many have turned to more online shopping during the pandemic, product reviews have become even more essential. But can you believe what you're reading?

Online shopping has been growing in popularity for years, but over the past few months it’s become a near necessity. That’s made product reviews even more important, but how do you know if they’re legit?

“Reviews are incredibly important for sales to grow on Amazon,” says Karie Casper, a Senior Client Strategist for Marketplace Strategy in Cleveland. Marketplace Strategy focuses on maximizing sales and market share for products on Amazon.

“Amazon works on a flywheel where products do organically better if you have better traffic to the page and better conversions,” says Casper. “A lot of times those conversions happen because you have high reviews.”

Reviews carry a lot of weight. It’s one of the main reasons online shoppers choose one item over another and can be that final push to click add to cart. 

The numbers show they work as well. 

A study from Pattern Consulting showed a rating increase of just one star, can lead to a 26% sales boost for products online. That kind of power has led to some companies trying to illegally inflate ratings. So how does it work?

“A lot of companies, what they’ll do is they’ll put a product insert in the package to say, ‘leave us a review and we’ll send you a refund,” says Casper.

We gained access to two private amazon reviewer groups on Facebook where hundreds of products were listed with companies willing to refund the purchase price for a 5 star review and in some cases, offer a commission on top of it.

Amazon banned incentivized reviews in 2016, and the company routinely hunts for fake ones, even suing sellers who try it. It’s also against federal law in the U.S. to post a fraudulent review of a product or service in exchange for payment. Amazon has reports less than one percent of reviews are fake, but companies like ReviewMeta.com has it much higher.

"It's not every product, but some products have a big problem," said Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta.com. "About 7-11 percent of reviews on Amazon appear to be unnatural."

ReviewMeta says nearly half of all reviews in the headphones category are untrustworthy. They deemed 37 percent of all cell phone accessory reviews fake and Even pest control reviews have red flags. So how can you tell legit from fake?

“A lot of the fake reviews, you’ll see, ‘great, I love this product,’ just a non-descriptive 5- star review,” says Casper. “That you can usually tell is, you know, is a fake review.”

Casper says actual reviews will typically go into more detail. Also, she says to be leery of products with a lot of 1 stars and 5 stars with no middle ground. You should look at the time frame the reviews are left to make sure all the high ratings were not left in one chunk of time. You can also click on reviewers’ profiles to make sure they’re not giving every product the same rating and keep an eye on spelling and grammar.

“If you’re reading through reviews, look for spelling. There’s a lot of people that will write reviews where you can tell it came from maybe a different country or something and if there’s a high quantity of those, it’s likely that the company was paying for some of those reviews,” says Casper.

Amazon says it wants customers to rely on product reviews and the company is working to ensure they’re authentic. A spokesperson for the company says, "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.”

Despite Amazon working to weed out the fakes, Casper says its still a good idea to practice a little diligence during review reading to ensure you’re getting a quality product.

“You can dig yourself into a hole looking up reviews, but in general make sure you’re looking at star ranking as a whole and quality of the reviews that are actually being written,” says Casper.