Fake Reviews: How to Fight Them and Protect Your Brand
5 Min Read By Gergo Varga
In a world where 93 percent of consumers rely on online reviews to decide where to spend, per a Igniyte meta-report, negative reviews can present a genuine threat to your business. Especially so for consumers trying to figure out which restaurant to try next.
Unfortunately, fake reviews are common, and your need to deal with them is more likely a “when” than an “if.” Actual figures vary per sector as well as platform type. For instance, Amazon itself has reported that 64 percent of supplement reviews on its website were fake, per Statista. Data aggregated by the World Economic Forum suggests that review platforms self-report that approximately four percent of reviews are fake, on average.
Fake reviews are a particular problem in the restaurant business. Nobody heads to a venue they think will serve them a bad meal. Furthermore, any suggestions of issues with hygiene and food safety raise a serious red flag to new and established customers.
Unjust and untrue feedback can come from multiple directions: dissatisfied customers seeking vengeance, unscrupulous competitors, and organized online criminals.
Thankfully, restaurants needn’t simply accept the problem as part of doing business. It is possible to fight back.
In this article, we explore how to counter the threat.
Fake Reviews vs. Bad Reviews
Before we begin, it’s important to emphasize that there’s a clear difference between fake reviews and bad reviews. As per Google’s review removal guidelines, you can’t remove a review “just because you disagree with it or don't like it.”
The only way to avoid bad reviews is to delight every single customer. Depending on the scale of your business, that may not be feasible. Thankfully, consumers are generally good at seeing the bigger picture. They tend to overlook the occasional outlier when reviews are overwhelmingly good.
Fake reviews are entirely different. They could contain outright lies, come from people who’ve never even visited your business, or be maliciously submitted in bulk, even by a bot. They could even tick all three of those nasty boxes and more.
Obviously, the priority is to get such reviews removed as soon as possible, before they have a detrimental effect on your restaurant. But that’s not always easy. Nowadays, there are many different places to leave restaurant reviews: Google, Facebook, Yelp, Deliveroo, your own website, and many more.
It’s not a simple matter of “disagreeing” with a review and removing it. On third-party platforms, you generally have to “prove your case.” Even on your own business website, where you technically have full control, you cannot simply remove the bad reviews and leave the glowing ones. Customers are wise to that.
The key to dealing with the fake review issue in a responsible and effective manner is to arm yourself with data that can help prove whether or not a review is genuine.
How to Respond to the Problem
As the business owner, you probably have a good instinct for spotting fake reviews. Perhaps a reviewer mentions a dish you don’t serve, or is so general in their criticism that it’s clear they’ve not actually visited in person. The problem, as we’ve established, is that a third-party platform won’t just remove a review based on your “instinct” – and your regulars’ loyalty will continue to be tested.
Thankfully, the internet isn’t nearly as anonymous as some “keyboard warriors” like to believe.
People may not be required to provide a huge amount of data when they leave a restaurant review, but much can be gleaned from the data they do hand over. Email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, and even the language used can tell a story.
The key to fighting fake reviews is to compliment instinct with solid data. And much of this information can come from free to access databases, including pages listed on Google and specialized search engines. This means searching for relevant OSINT data, as explained on SEON. The term OSINT simply encompasses all openly available data that can inform research and help us make better decisions and reach conclusions, in various sectors and types of activity.
For instance, if you use a reverse email lookup tool to prove that a certain reviewer’s email address has no other online presence, it can be safely assumed that it was created just to write this bad review, and is thus likely to not be legitimate.
You can use this information to moderate negative reviews on your own site, and prove to third-party platforms that specific reviews are fake. This increases the chance that they will be swiftly removed.
What Can You Find Out?
A single email, phone number or IP address is enough to get started. By querying the data behind the information submitted, you can find out things like:
- Whether an email address is genuine.
- If an email address is in regular use or has just been created.
- Whether a phone number or address is linked to social media accounts, or messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
- If an IP address is genuine, in the “correct” country, or behind a secure browser or VPN.
Going one step further, you can look at whether a person (or automated system) is using a “multi accounting” tactic. For example, three bad reviews posted in quick succession on the same platform, with different email addresses but all originating from the same IP address, would indicate the same person maliciously posting multiple reviews.
You can research this information manually, with some free tools available, or as part of integrating a full fraud prevention system on your business website to automate much of the process.
So, let’s say you’re certain you’ve identified one or more fake reviews. How do you then take action?
It will depend a lot on whether that review is on your own site, or on a third-party platform.
On Your Own Business Website
If you have the data to show a review on your own website is fake, you can simply go ahead and remove the review.
Should anybody query that moderation, you have the documentation to show why you made the decision.
On a Third-Party Platform
Things are more complicated on third-party platforms (and, ironically, they are where people are more likely to leave reviews). Sites like TripAdvisor pride themselves on “detecting” suspicious reviews, but plenty slip through the net.
In fact, the same website received ranking penalties “for encouraging or paying for the submitting of fake reviews” in 2018, and nearly 1 million review submissions were found to be fraudulent in 2020, per the respective TripAdvisor Review Transparency Reports for those years.
The information you can gather and query in the first place depends on the platform’s specific policies and procedures. In some cases, you may have access to reviewers’ IP addresses, for example, providing a useful starting point for researching their digital fingerprint.
Next, you’ll need to research each platform’s appeal process. For example, Yelp has a moderator-controlled system to help business owners along. Knowing where to find the appeal form and what information you need to submit helps you to act fast when required.
Clearly, the more information you’ve collected, the more likely you will receive a fast and satisfactory response. For example, a screenshot showing that a user left multiple reviews with different recently created email addresses is compelling. So is proof somebody was using a VPN, or a phone with a virtual SIM card.
Remember – show them the evidence, rather than arguing the instinct.
Good reviews are something that many restaurants build up with considerable pride. Showing them off is a great marketing tool. Unfortunately, if you’re in business for any length of time, you’ll likely have to deal with some fake reviews too.
By familiarizing yourself with ways to trace where they came from (or didn’t come from), you’re ready to respond when the inevitable happens.