How to spot phony online reviews

Tampa, Florida -- For 20 years, Alicia Noble and La Paqu'ena Columbia have been building their reputation at one of Tampa's most popular restaurants.

"We are known to be one of the best Colombia restaurants in the area," Noble said.

10 Investigates confirmed the restaurant had great health inspections from the state....and great reviews online!

"We have ratings of fives pretty much across the board," Noble said.

But not every review is glowing, and when you see some consistency in the reviews with a sudden change, you've got to question why anyone would say, "This place is full of roaches."

Suspicious feedback like that can leave a bad taste in diners' mouths, even before they decide which restaurant to visit.

Noble is one of many restaurateurs who have to keep a constant eye on their online profiles and understands the significance of these reviews. "A lot of people that come from out of town, the first thing that they do is they go online to look at reviews," she said.

According to a recent study conducted by Georgios Zervase with Boston University's School of Management, Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud, some businesses will try and sabotage their competitors!

"That can make a huge difference in small business like restaurants and other local businesses that are on Yelp," Zervas said.

Zervase studied millions of online Yelp reviews and determined about 16 percent were likely phonies. "Some are not very sophisticated, so you might see a string of very bad reviews that are genuine and then this glowing description of a business, 5 stars, how wonderful it is."

He said a 1-star bump on sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor can boost business by 5-10 percent!

With a profit like that, some businesses are now participating in what many refer to as "astroturfing"— that is paying people to post fake reviews.

Yelp says its team is aggressively fighting astroturfing by going undercover and slapping "consumer alerts" on businesses that abuse the system.

According to the FTC, it is illegal for a business to post a review under the guise of a consumer.

New York's attorney general even fined a number of companies hundreds of thousands of dollars last fall for posting fake reviews.

While some online review sites are trying to keep out fake reviews, Yelp is the leader in filtering out suspicious reviews —flagging as many as 1-in-4 reviews as "suspicious."

On Yelp's site, beyond writing reviews of your own, you can flag a suspicious review, and the Yelp team will take a closer look at it.

Zervas said, for consumers, it can be tough to spot fake reviews, but here are a few tips for spotting red flags:

  • A string of bad/mediocre reviews followed by a glowing review may be the restaurant trying to salvage reputation
  • Small independent restaurants are more likely to have fake reviews (positive or negative) than large or chain restaurants
  • Free sites are a lot easier to defraud then pay sites, which tend to have fewer fakes
  • Businesses with fewer reviews are more likely to engage in positive review fraud
  • Businesses with "claimed pages" they regularly monitor and update on a review website are more likely to engage in fraudulent reviews

Even as the number of fakes grow, so do the number of legitimate reviews, and they can be a great resource if you know what to look for.

"We shouldn't always take them at face value -- be skeptical but not dismissive," Zervas said

Not dismissing all reviews is important to businesses like Noble's, which does have a lot of positive reviews online.

"If a lot of people are telling you that something is really good, you should try it!" she said.


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