11-28-19 5:44 AM EST | Email Article
By Suzanne Kapner 

If you're planning to shop online during Black Friday, you might want to think twice before relying on product reviews.

More than a third of online reviews on major websites, including those on Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc. and Sephora, are fake, meaning they are generated by robots or people paid to write them, according to Fakespot Inc., which identifies fraudulent reviews. The number of phony reviews spikes during the holiday shopping season.

The problem has become so pervasive that the Federal Trade Commission has started cracking down on violators, and lawmakers are pressing Amazon to do a better job of policing reviews on its website. This month Apple Inc. pulled all product reviews and ratings from its online store without explanation.

Amazon, Walmart and Sephora dispute Fakespot's findings but say they are taking steps to make their reviews more reliable. In Amazon's case, it said it has spent more than $400 million to protect customers from review abuse and other fraud or misconduct in the past year, and that it prevented more than 13 million attempts last year to leave inauthentic reviews on its website.

An Amazon spokeswoman said that in the past month more than 99% of the reviews read by customers on its site were authentic. She added that Fakespot can't determine the authenticity of Amazon reviews, because it doesn't have access to Amazon's proprietary data.

The problem is frustrating shoppers ahead of the important holiday season, as more product research and purchases shift from stores to smartphones. Online sales are expected to increase as much as 14% in November and December, accounting for about 23% of total retail sales, excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants, according to the National Retail Federation.

"I really rely on reviews, but now I feel like I can't trust them," said Jessica Shanmac, a 40-year-old financial services manager. She recently bought several products on Amazon that didn't live up to their hype, including Christmas tree decorations that got mostly five-star ratings but were so shoddy that some were missing glitter and others were bent.

"Don't tell me it's an amazing product when it's crappy," said the Vancouver, Wash., resident. She has started doing more research before she makes an online purchase, including comparing reviews across various websites.

Fakespot, ReviewMeta and other startups use algorithms and artificial intelligence to filter reviews and flag those that are problematic. They look at whether reviews are spaced evenly over time, or clustered around particular days, as well as how many are written by verified purchasers -- those identified as having bought the item directly from the retailer or brand. They also analyze the language, looking for repetition of themes or words that would suggest the posts were written off a script.

One sign that the problem of fake reviews is widespread is the overwhelming number of positive ratings that most products receive. Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, which analyzes reviews on Amazon, said his firm noticed a spike in unverified purchase reviews on Amazon's website in the first three months of 2019, and 98% of them were five-star ratings. Less than 1% were one-star reviews. Amazon removed most of the reviews flagged by ReviewMeta.

A more natural distribution, according to data scientists, would be a more equal number of five-star and one-star reviews, since people who feel strongest about a product, both positively and negatively, tend to review it.

"The majority of online reviews are positive," said David Décary-Hétu, chief research officer for cybersecurity firm Flare Systems. "It's impossible to have that many happy people."

A recent FTC settlement shows how hard it is for companies to combat the problem. The FTC alleged in a complaint that the chief executive of Sunday Riley Modern Skincare LLC and other managers created fake Sephora.com accounts and, posing as customers, wrote positive reviews of the beauty company's products.

After Sephora removed the fake reviews coming from Sunday Riley's internet addresses, employees used a virtual private network, essentially an encrypted internet connection, to hide their identity so they could continue posting fake reviews, according to the complaint.

The settlement prohibits Sunday Riley employees from misrepresenting themselves as independent or ordinary users in reviews and it requires the company to disclose any material connection it may have with endorsers of its products. It is still allowed to sell its products on Sephora.

Sunday Riley didn't respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Sephora, which is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, said the company doesn't believe the actions of Sunday Riley are representative of its reviews. She said the company has taken steps to better police reviews, for instance, by labeling those that are written by customers who bought the item from Sephora as a verified purchaser, a strategy also adopted by other retailers.

Brands can easily game the system by reimbursing reviewers who purchase the product directly, industry watchers say.

"Working in the industry you learn about nefarious stuff going on," said Elizabeth Shaffer, a former Jet.com executive who left last year to start Masse, a product review website. She said it wasn't uncommon for brands to hire college students to write fake reviews, or to offer gift cards to people for taking down negative reviews.

Ms. Shaffer is hoping to keep Masse fake-free by recruiting people who already use the products they write about. Masse doesn't pay for reviews or offer free products and she said most of its users don't have large social media followings so brands aren't reaching out to them with incentives. She said most of Masse's users find out about the site through word-of-mouth or internet searches.

Influenster, a product-review website and app, gives users the chance to receive free products from brands called VoxBoxes. Amazon has an invitation-only program called Vine where reviewers get free products donated by suppliers.

Influenster is owned by Bazaarvoice, a company that helps brands and retailers collect, authenticate and showcase user-generated content, including customer ratings and reviews. A Bazaarvoice spokeswoman said only 2% of the reviews on Influenster have originated from VoxBoxes or other types of brand campaigns. Users must disclose when they review products they got free.

One former Amazon Vine member said she left the program a few years ago, because she felt pressured to write positive reviews. She said the most valuable products went to the highest ranked reviewers, and the best way to improve a ranking was to write positive posts. During her seven years in the program, she says she received products with a total value of $15,000, including an $800 mobile phone antenna.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn't incentivize positive ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews or require that a review be written when a Vine member gets a free product. She said reviewer rankings don't play a role in the products Vine members receive. Amazon says it selects Vine participants based on the helpfulness of their reviews as voted by other Amazon customers.

One reason Walmart has fake reviews on its website, according to Fakespot, is that it pulls some of them from other sites. A review of a Dyson vacuum cleaner, for instance, may be from someone who bought the product someplace other than Walmart, said Fakespot CEO Saoud Khalifah, who started the company in 2016.

A Walmart spokeswoman said that while the website does source a small number of reviews from third parties such as brands and review sites, it doesn't post reviews from other retailers. She added that the company is committed to ensuring reviews are authentic. It expects all reviewers to adhere to its guidelines, which prohibit posting false or inaccurate content.

Best Buy Co., on the other hand, doesn't use third-party reviews and almost all the posts are by verified Best Buy purchasers, which has helped it keep phony reviews to roughly 10%, according to Fakespot.

A Best Buy spokesman said the company has various methods for blocking unreliable reviews, including preventing someone from writing multiple posts on the same product. It also measures the velocity of reviews to sales. Typically, the two should correlate. If a product that isn't selling well has a lot of reviews, that is a red flag, he said.

Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com


Corrections & Amplifications

This article was corrected at 9:01 p.m. ET to reflect that Elizabeth Shaffer's last name was misspelled as Shafer in the 20th paragraph of the original version.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 28, 2019 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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