Review Site Forensics: A Primer on How Easy it is to Catch Fake Review Submitters

As the saying goes, “A happy customer tells one friend, and unhappy customer tells everybody”.  The Internet has given consumers an unprecedented reach to express their likes and dislikes on the Internet.  Today we’ve got sites like Yelp, Google Places, and host of others providing a centralized forum where users can express their opinions about a business in a very public way.  A good score can be the difference between a potential customer visiting your store vs. the competition.     With such power over buying decisions, business owners can be tempted to submit false reviews.  They do it for all sorts of reason like bumping up their three star rating to four or pushing down a string of bad reviews.   It’s a dangerous activity that is highly detectable and can cause irrevocable damage to your company’s image.  In this article we’ll show you some ways people who submit fake reviews can get caught and why doing so can inflict far more damage than any single bad review could have.

Let’s assume that you hire someone to write a positive review for you.    Your dealership is in California and your paid reviewer is in New York.   This person submits several positive reviews about your dealership using multiple fake accounts with a combination of Gmail and Hotmail address.      So how could they possibly get caught?  Cue the Who’s “Who Are You” a la CSI…

Most likely the IP address gave it away.  An IP addresses is like a phone number for your computer.  For example your parents have the phone number 555-123-54567.  When you see that number on your caller ID you know it’s them.  IP address work in a similar same way.  And like a phone number’s area code, IP addresses are associated with geographic areas.

The first misstep of our would-be scammer was the New York IP address.    There are plenty of free and of course paid databases that will tell you what IP address is associated with what city.   Every review site uses these.  A New York IP address submitting multiple reviews about a California based business looks very suspicious.     Of course, you can get around that by hiring someone from the same city your dealership is in to write reviews.  This solves the problem; right?  Well, not exactly.

Even though the person had the forethought to use different accounts with different email address and an IP address all from the same city as the dealership, they’ve still got a problem.   Did they remember to change their IP address before submitting each review or use a proxy service that changes the IP address?  Chances are that they didn’t.  If the same IP submits multiple reviews for the exact same business it’s a huge red flag that something shady is happening.   Again, think of it as someone calling you from the same phone number over and over again.

Now say that this person was crafty enough to use a proxy service to hide their address.  Did they create their own proxy or did they use an open proxy?  A proxy is a computer that sits between you and the web site you are visiting.  It’s a way to make it look like the traffic is coming from a source other than you.  Think of it as using a stranger’s cell phone to make a call.  Imagine an open proxy as a bunch of different cell phones you can use.  So you can make one call with phone A and another call with phone B and no one will know it’s you because the caller ID’s are all different.  These open proxy lists are widely available so there is a good chance that review site knows you’re using an open proxy.  It takes a little bit of coding and a site can immediately flag or even ignore reviews submitted in this manner.  Legitimate users tend not to use open proxies so it’s a dead give way something strange is happening.

Let’s assume that you’ve found a master fake review ninja that can easily sail past the IP address filters noted above.  But, there is one last catch.  Some very smart folks at Cornell University have developed an algorithm that can tell a fake review from a real one.   Fake reviews often follow predictable patterns.  For example, a false review often mentions the exact name of the business and location as well as frequent use of the first person.  See the graphic below.

So even after all those hoops they jumped through to submit a fake review, the submission gets caught any way because it couldn’t get past the review quality filter.

So what happens when a fake review is discovered?  Most sites will just ban the account of the person who submitted the review and remove the false reviews.    That’s the best case scenario.   You also run the risk of other users of the site and even your competitors broadcasting your use of these shady tactics thus casting doubt on all positive reviews in your profile.   Trust us when we say this news will spread like wild fire from one review site to the next as your competitors tell everyone.   If that happens, your online reputation is toast.  It’s time to consider a name change.

Needless to say, you’ve got to be downright crazy to submit a fake review.  There are so many different ways to get caught.   Even if you can hide your IP tracks and fool the fake review algorithm once, can you do it 10 times? Or even 20?  Let’s do some simple math. A site that has 100 reviews with a three star average rating needs an additional 100 five star reviews to bump up to four stars.  Do you believe your fake review ninja can sneak past the defenses one hundred times without get caught?

The bottom line is that that you may be able to sneak one or two fake reviews through, but you wouldn’t be able to do it on any sort of scale that would significantly change your ranking.   Getting caught would have a detrimental effect on your account’s credibility casting doubt on every genuine review associated with your business.   The risk to your company’s hard earned credibility isn’t worth it.  You are better off increasing the quality of your service and getting real positive reviews the old fashioned way.


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