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Telltale signs you're reading fake Amazon reviews

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By James Ellis/ValuePenguin

The coming holiday season means millions of Americans will open up their wallets as soon as turkey dinner is served right up until the night before Christmas. In 2017, the country dropped $691.9 billion on making merry, specifically by purchasing plenty of decorations, candy and, of course, gifts.

While satisfying everyone's list used to mean trudging out to the mall and battling hordes of stressed-out, weary shoppers, more people than ever now depend on Amazon to help make holiday wishes come true. The CNBC All-American Economic Survey 2017 found that 76 percent of U.S. consumers did holiday shopping on Amazon. Walmart garnered 8 percent.

One trade-off of having thousands of products available for purchase at the tap of a button: These potential gifts exist only as a collection of pixels on your screen until they actually arrive at your front door, which is why most of us look to customer reviews for insights on whether the gift is worth pulling out the credit card for.

But many of the purported authentic reviews from ordinary, everyday shoppers are works of fiction, paid for by merchants to bolster the sales of whatever they're shilling. All this makes fake Amazon reviews a growing problem for customers and a headache for the e-commerce giant, whose company ethos is putting customers first.

Who writes fake Amazon reviews?

"I got a free dress out of the process, they got a review," said Alex Tran. A yoga and fitness blogger, Tran found herself browsing private Facebook groups dedicated to hooking up sellers with review writers. She quickly received a private message from someone offering to reimburse her in full for purchasing a maxi dress and reviewing it on Amazon.

"They gave me a selection of six different dresses," Tran said. "I thought, 'That's cool, you can get things you're actually interested in.'" The individual didn't pressure her into writing a 5-star review, though they did encourage Tran to post a photo of the dress with her review "so it looks more authentic."

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The positive feedback Tran left on the dress' Amazon product description page appears to other users as a verified purchase -- a classification reserved for reviews written by those who buy the product but don't receive any sort of discount. Tran remains adamant that receiving the dress for free didn't bias her review, but that disclaimer is nowhere to be found on the review.

This under-the-table relationship between sellers and review writers for hire exists because it works. "Historically, consumers have relied on price and brand to determine the quality of a product," said Bart de Lange, associate professor of marketing at Escuela Superior de Administración y Dirección de Empresas (ESADE) in Barcelona, Spain, and author of a recent study on the validity of online ratings. "What we found is, as soon as you give consumers access to the average user rating, it blows away the other effects."

Seeing that 5-star rating on a child's car seat can override our better judgment, convincing us an $80 product is just as good as one costing $400.

How to identify fake Amazon reviews.

The star rating represents just one facet of customer feedback on a product you have access to when shopping on Amazon, the other being the written text reviews themselves. Reading glowing reviews about how a pair of headphones transformed a customer's appreciation of music or why a particular brand of toilet paper has them looking forward to every trip to the bathroom helps reinforce the belief that you're looking at a quality purchase and helps convert you from a casual online shopper to a customer -- a fact Amazon counts on.

"Reviews are accounted for in Amazon's search algorithm very similarly to how PageRank works on Google," said Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, a website dedicated to helping consumers identify questionable online reviews. "If you have a high rating and positive customer sentiment, they weigh your product very heavily," meaning the review gets seen by more potential Amazon shoppers like you.

Khalifah founded Fakespot in 2016 to shine a light on what he sees as a rampant problem that threatens to undermine the credibility of customer reviews. "It's a goal for me to bring trust back to e-commerce," he said.

Shoppers curious about the quality of reviews on a product can copy and paste the product page's link into a search bar on the Fakespot homepage and receive a grade on the overall reliability of the reviews, ranging from F to A. The Fakespot algorithm analyzes each review's language (comparing it linguistically with the language of known fake reviews), the review writer's history on Amazon, the number of total reviews the product has received in a short time span and other factors Khalifah wouldn't reveal to determine the grade of the product's reviews.

It should be noted that Fakespot never says a product has fake Amazon reviews. Instead it uses the term "unreliable," since the company claims it's impossible to know for certain the intent of the reviewer and whether it was written in good faith.

Here's a quick checklist for spotting bogus reviews:

  • The review sounds like it's describing another product. If a review about lip balm suddenly mentions how the dog loves it, you should be suspicious.
  • The review writer has a history of loving the company. If you click on the reviewer's profile and see a history of leaving 5-star reviews for products all made by the same company, you might want to start second-guessing the writer's objectivity.  
  • The product received a ton of 5-star reviews in a very short time. If a pair of generic headphones has quickly attracted a huge number of positive reviews, it could be a sign the seller has recruited reviewers to shill the product.
  • The product receives bad reviews everywhere but Amazon. If a USB thumb drive gets bad reviews on Best Buy, Walmart and other sites but is highly praised on Amazon, it could be a sign that the seller is gaming the system.
  • There's no established brand leader for the product. When no strong brand exists – think cable adapters or phone screen protectors – such products are susceptible to fake review campaigns. Be extra cautious when reading such reviews. 

This article originally appeared on the financial website ValuePenguin

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