Businesses across the UK are artificially boosting their online ratings by paying firms for fake Google reviews, as a booming industry in misleading information avoids detection by the tech giant, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion’s latest research involved setting up and buying fake reviews for its own fake business listing on Google. Following the trail of these paid-for reviewers, Which? found they were employing similar manipulative tactics for a wide range of businesses – from a stockbroker in Canary Wharf to a bakery in Edinburgh.
The findings have exposed concerning gaps in Google’s monitoring of its review platform, leaving people at risk of being misled into using local businesses that appear to have received glowing endorsements, but could in reality be substandard or in one case potentially even pose a serious financial risk to consumers.
Which? created its own fake Google business listing named ‘Five Star Reviews’. Researchers bought 20 Google reviews for £108 ($150) from one of the review sites it uncovered, easily found through a quick Google search, called Reviewr.
Reviewr says ‘buying Google reviews is undoubtedly a smart choice’ as ‘89% of consumers trust online Google reviews as much as personal recommendations’. It claims to offer ‘100% permanent reviews’ for the platform that won’t be deleted.
Which? was able to choose the star rating for each review. It requested that all were five stars and that it wanted three to five left each day. Which?’s researchers even provided the exact wording they wanted for the 20 reviews – praising how good the made-up business and its fake owner Catherine are. Over the next week they started appearing, left by a variety of Google accounts.
One of the reviews was subsequently deleted, so Which? queried it with its Reviewr account manager and was told that sometimes they see “review filtering”. If that happens, the company said it slows down the rate of posting reviews so that they “stick”.
After further digging into the profiles of these reviewers, Which? then found that many of the Google accounts used to plant its fake reviews had infiltrated Google reviews at scale – reviewing the same selection of businesses all around the country.
Which? linked together 45 businesses that had at least three ‘reviewers’ in common – including a stockbroker in Canary Wharf, a solicitors firm in Liverpool, a dentist in Greater Manchester, a London estate agent and a bakery in Edinburgh – suggesting that each of these businesses paid the same review trading company to post these glowing appraisals.
Several of the profiles had left reviews of at least 15 businesses. Of those, all had rated an SEO advisory business in Edinburgh and a psychic in London as five stars – an unlikely coincidence.
In some cases, these fake positive reviews could be masking genuine concerns about serious financial risk to consumers. The stockbroker based in Canary Wharf had, for six months in 2020, received a raft of negative reviews – many citing “shockingly poor customer service”. Concerningly, one reviewer claimed to have lost £27,000 worth of investments because the business acted against his wishes, while another called the company ‘scammers’ and a third reviewer said it was the worst broker they had ever dealt with.
However, between two and four months prior to Which?’s investigation, 30 five-star reviews left in quick succession had boosted the company’s rating. Which? linked many of these reviewers to other businesses identified in its investigation – including one profile that had also reviewed Which?’s own fake business.
Separately, another reviewer who had left reviews across a number of these businesses had also given five stars to a Liverpool-based solicitor claiming that it had helped them to get back £45,400 from a bank after being scammed. If these reviews are based on fabricated experiences, consumers in a vulnerable financial position could end up using the service based on a false recommendation.
One reviewer had left an extremely unlikely series of ratings. He had praised a Surrey-based limo hire company, stating that he had lived in the area for five years and used them for all airport trips, and in the same month used the services of a Glasgow-based electric gate installation firm for his home – locations that are 412 miles apart.
Over the next few months, the same profile used a dentist in Greater Manchester, a paving company in Bournemouth, and praised the services of a locksmith in Cambridgeshire for rescuing his two-year-old daughter from a locked car outside of her nursery.
During its investigation, Which? also uncovered four other review sites, AppSally, BuyServiceUSA, DripFeedReviews and Link Building Services, that appeared to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk. They were all easily found in Google search results for the search term “Buy Google reviews”.
A recent Which? survey found that, of those who had used review websites or apps to look for customer reviews on a local trade business over the previous year, almost half (46%) said that they had read Google reviews.
When Which? shared its findings with Google, it quickly shut down the fake business Which? had set up. It said deliberately inauthentic content is in breach of its policies and said: “When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.” Paid fake reviews is a complex, persistent threat, according to Google.
Although Google says it has clear policies that prohibit this type of activity, and mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, based on its findings, Which? has concerns that its approach is not effective enough. Online platforms that host reviews, including Google, must do more to proactively prevent fake reviews from infiltrating their sites.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently investigating the problem of fake reviews. To protect consumers from being misled, the consumer champion is calling on the regulator to take strong action against sites that host reviews if it finds that they are failing to prevent fake reviews flooding their platforms.
It must also take swift and effective action that puts a stop to sites that are trading, or facilitating the trading, of fake reviews, a practice which is likely to be in breach of consumer law. If the CMA’s investigation doesn’t resolve the problem, the government must consider how it will increase websites’ legal responsibilities for fake and misleading review activity.
Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?, said:
“Businesses exploiting flaws in Google’s review system to rise up the ranks are putting honest businesses on the back foot and leaving consumers at risk of being misled.
“The regulator must stamp out this harmful behaviour and hold sites to account if they fail to protect their users, otherwise the government must urgently increase websites’ legal responsibilities for misleading content on their platforms.
“Google, and other sites, must clamp down on and prevent these manipulative practices to ensure that consumers can trust the reviews that they read.”
Notes to editors
- In January 2021 Which? went undercover and signed up to several firms offering review manipulation services – including the posting of fake five star reviews – to business listings on Google.
- In June 2020, Yonder, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 2,072 UK adults online to find out where they look for customer reviews. The sample was demographically representative of the UK population. Of those that had used reviews of local businesses, excluding trades, in the 12 months prior to the survey, 46 per cent had read Google reviews.
- Which? research, and a CMA investigation, have also previously exposed the issue of Facebook groups trading fake Amazon reviews. More recently Which? found review sites that were trading Amazon reviews.
Rights of reply
“We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google. Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology. When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.” Google spokesperson
When Which? reached out to Reviewr it initially responded but did not provide a comment.
BuyServiceUSA told Which?: “We’re helping the new business to get some reviews.”
It said that it’s not in breach of any terms and conditions and that its marketing service (local SEO) actually increases traffic and helps businesses to get potential customers.
Link Building Services
When Which? approached Link Building Services, it deleted the page apparently offering Google reviews for sale and denied providing fake review services. When presented with a screenshot of the page, the firm suggested the lack of a listed price as evidence that it was not selling fake reviews.
At the time of publication, neither of these review sites had responded to Which? requests for comment.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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