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How small businesses can tackle fake online reviews

5-minute read

Sam Bromley

7 February 2022

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Does an online review of your business look suspicious? If you don’t remember the customer or the interaction, you might be dealing with a fake online review.

  • How to advertise your small business

Example fake online review

Say you're faced with the Google review above, but the details don't add up. Firstly, you don’t remember a customer raising these issues recently. Come to think of it, there was no 29 February this year – and worse, you don’t even have a halloumi burger on the menu. You’re probably looking at a fake online review.

Fake online reviews: how big is the problem?

Word of mouth has always held huge power. A customer recommending your services to a friend or family member often holds more sway than any of your marketing materials.

The flipside? Customers sharing negative experiences can really harm your business, unless you take steps to make it right.

In the real world, the impact of baseless word of mouth is limited to one person’s social circle. But an anonymised, digital world opens up the opportunity for fake experiences to be shared with huge numbers of potential customers.

Government investigation into fake positive reviews

In June 2021 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the government’s competition regulator, opened an investigation into Amazon and Google. The CMA suggests that the internet giants may have broken consumer law by not taking enough action to protect shoppers from fake online reviews.

And in July 2021, the BBC reported on government proposals to make it illegal to pay someone to write (or host) a fake review.

So, the government accepts that fake online reviews are a problem, but their investigation is largely concerned with protecting consumers from fake positive reviews that fool people into buying a product. What about protecting businesses themselves from fake negative reviews?

How to tackle fake online reviews

Unfortunately, businesses have to deal with this problem on their own. Take the example of Blackpool restaurateur Steve Hoddy, who successfully took an online troll to court for malicious falsehood. The troll was ordered to pay £7,455 in compensation.

Before Hoddy got to the point of suing the fake reviewer, though, he’d already directly confronted him and managed to get Tripadvisor to remove the offending reviews.

Hoddy had an advantage considering he studied law at university. But even if you don’t know the legal ins-and-outs, you can still tackle fake online reviews armed with these top tips.

1. Make sure that it’s fake

You should respond to a negative review whether it’s genuine or fake, but the tone of your response will differ depending on its authenticity.

How can you tell fake reviews apart?

  • some details may sound off – if the review gets important details about your business wrong, like mentioning food you don't serve, then it may not be genuine
  • similarly, some details may be non-specific – genuine reviews will usually have identifiable criticisms, while fake ones often don’t give specific details about what went wrong
  • the reviewer may be prolific for all the wrong reasons – check the reviewer’s history to see whether they’ve left similar reviews for other businesses (or glowing reviews for competitors)
  • fake reviews may use over-the-top language – whether someone’s using expletives or particularly flowery language, fake reviews read more like creative writing

To back this last point up, a 2011 study by Cornell University revealed that truthful hotel reviews are “more likely to use concrete words relating to the hotel, like bathroom, check-in or price.

"Deceivers do more to set the scene, using words like vacation, business trip or my husband.”

Fake reviews also use more verbs than nouns and more first-person pronouns like I and me.

2. Respond to fake online reviews

Whether they’re positive or negative, responding to reviews lets you tell your side of the story. And if you’re setting the record straight when responding to a fake one, you can highlight its lack of authenticity in your response.

Pick up on the inaccurate details, or the more absurd ones. For instance, restaurateur Steve Hoddy’s troll suggested that “the owner glares at you weirdly”, so Hoddy countered by replying that he’d never dream of doing so.

Your response could even end up holding more influence than the review itself in the eyes of potential customers.

Suggest that you don’t have any record of the interaction and that you’re open to investigating. It’s important to be professional, so don’t be tempted to match the insults and tone of the fake review. Be brief, be polite, but be prepared to defend yourself too.

3. Ask your supporters to help out

Your loyal customers know the real you, so being transparent about the fake review can be a great strategy.

If you politely call out the review on your social media platforms, using humour or sarcasm, you’re sending out the message that it’s nothing to worry about.

And asking for real reviews from customers can help make the fake ones less visible, as these reviews will show at the top. Find out how to get more Google reviews.

This cosmetics business posted a conversation with a fake reviewer to its TikTok followers, highlighting that the reviewer is operating simply out of spite.

@popaglosscosmetics The amount of people making fake reviews on my products after they saw the tiktok of it. Not okay! #lipglossbusiness #smallbusiness #fyp #xyzcba #fy ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys - Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey

4. Remove fake reviews

Unfortunately, the online giants don’t always make this easy. The platforms will usually give you the option to report a review for violating their policies, but it can be difficult for you to prove that the reviewer isn’t a genuine customer.

On Google and Facebook, the option to report the review is present on the post itself. Tripadvisor gives you the ability to manage reviews through your business’s account. Other platforms will give you similar options, so have a look at their help pages if you’re not sure.

You can ask your loyal customers to flag the review too, to make the problem more visible.

The platforms usually give you the option to escalate the issue. On Google, for example, you can log in to your Google Business Profile to manage your review removal requests. You’ll see details for contacting Google if you need more help.

The platforms might still ultimately decide that certain reviews don’t go against their guidelines. If that’s the case, your response is the most important weapon in fighting fake information.

5. Monitor reviews

Finally, be sure to keep an eye on all the feedback that you get about your business. Responding in a timely way helps you show that you take all feedback seriously, even if some of it is inauthentic.

You should be able to switch on notifications in your accounts across the various platforms. Do it on Google by signing into your Business Profile and going to Settings (here’s how to manage your notifications).

If you use other platforms, search their help pages to find out how to get notifications.

Have you ever had to deal with fake online reviews? Let us know in the comments below.

Photograph 1: vinzstudio/stock.adobe.com

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