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Fake reviews experiment suggests online shoppers more likely to buy poor goods

By Jamie Harris
People are more than twice as likely to be misled into buying poor quality goods online due to the influence of fake reviews, a UK consumer experiment suggests.

Which? asked almost 10,000 shoppers to carry out a task using images designed to mimic Amazon, with simulated activity varying from inflated star ratings to fake review text, as well as the addition of platform endorsement labels.

Participants were instructed to select one of three product types – headphones, dash cams or cordless vacuum cleaners – and then shown five identically-priced products, ranging from a Which? best buy, three fillers with mediocre reviews and a “Don’t buy” which may or may not have been manipulated by fake reviews.

After looking at the product information and seven reviews for each, they were told to pick the item they would most likely choose to buy in real life.

Of the group given items that contained no fake reviews, one in 10 people (10.5%) opted for a “Don’t buy” product.

But for those presented with fake review text and inflated star ratings, the number more than doubled, with 23% tricked into going for a “Don’t buy” product.

With a platform endorsement label added, the number of people choosing the poor quality items increased to 25%, a 136% increase compared with the group that was not exposed to any fake reviews.

The consumer group said the study demonstrates the risk of online shoppers being misled by a recommendation label underpinned by fake reviews.

It comes after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced that it will examine how sites currently detect and respond to fake reviews.

Caroline Normand, Which? director of advocacy, said: “Which? has found categorical evidence that people are at huge risk of being misled by fake reviews, which is particularly worrying given people are shopping online more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Online platforms must put more effective measures in place to stop unscrupulous sellers gaming the system with ease, otherwise the CMA needs to take strong action against these major sites.”

Amazon responded to the study, saying: “We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence, knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant.

“We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.”

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