By Mark Fairlie.

According to a recent survey by Which? magazine, 97% of UK adults state that user reviews play an important part in their decision-making process for purchasing goods and services on the internet. That’s equivalent to £23bn worth of sales every year, reports the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

A Washington Post article from April 2018 stated that in

“some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews”.

During their investigation, researchers from Which? were able to join several Facebook groups where users were offered a reward for posting a 5* review of a product available to purchase on Amazon or Facebook. That reward was that, upon placement of a 5* review, the user would have the cost of their purchase refunded. If a review was not positive enough, no refund would be forthcoming.

One example, cited by YourMoney, when a refund did not take place occurred when a researcher posted a 2* review of a smartwatch. The vendor of the watch told the researcher that their review would need to be re-written to receive the item for free.

Which?’s findings echo the result of a similar investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live in April 2018 during which its reporters discovered that 5* reviews were being purchased by suppliers on a number of different internet platforms, including TripAdvisor.

How important are reviews?

Can you trust online reviews anymore?

Very important – so much so that, in July 2018, the Daily Telegraph reported that officials running the NHS Choices website had revealed that GPs were posing as patients and posting fake reviews to the site.

Such is the commercial value of positive reviews that the Competition and Markets Authority has claimed that fake reviews can now even be found on more heavily moderated sites like Checkatrade and Expedia (read the report here).

Some companies have even gone to the lengths of posting negative reviews about a competitor’s products or service to favour their own, most famously seen in the Samsung and HTC reviews scandal from 2013. (ABC News Go).

Good reviews not only act as an incentive for a consumer to decide in favour of purchasing a particular product or service. They also influence the ranking that a product enjoys on Amazon, eBay, Google, and other e-commerce and search platforms reports Search Engine Journal.

How to avoid being caught out.

Which? has produced a detailed online guide for consumers wary of being caught out by fake online reviews.

It recommends that users be suspicious of a “reviewer being over the top about the product” and for reviews written in all capitals, with odd formatting or (which) simply have no punctuation at all. You should also check a reviewer’s other reviews including to see “if they’ve bought the same thing a number of times too – that could mean that they’re a member of a review group”.

The guide also recommends that potential purchasers use Fakespot and ReviewMeta which “analyse(s) reviews for telltale signs of fakery”.