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 watchdog’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 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 Reviewr which was easily found through a quick Google search.
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 were. Over the next week they started appearing, left by a variety of Google accounts.
After further digging into the profiles of these reviewers, Which? 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.
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”.
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 stated: “When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.”
A spokesperson added:
“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.”
However, 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, Which? 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 from flooding their platforms.
Says Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?:
“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.”