With a world of buying choices at our fingertips for anything from eye liner to refrigerators it’s no wonder more and more web sites are adding user reviews and ratings systems to help guide people to the better products. But like all noble pursuits, there are those that “game the system” and use the very resource meant to help people in order to deceive them into parting with their hard earned money. This article is targeted at software developers that create fake favorable reviews and consumers who aren’t familiar with the ways to spot false reviews. Also, I include a message to online retailers/app stores, etc. that do not police their own reviews to strike down false reviews meant to help or hurt a product, and include techniques to ease the burden of self-policing. Note, this article is applicable to practically any site/store that allows reviews of any type of product.
First, a word to the software developers/publishers/manufacturers that game the system: don’t! The net result of posting false reviews might be a temporary increase in revenue, but an overall decline on sales for everyone (including you) when consumers are less prone to paying $1-$10 for an app after being burned. Not only that, people tend to be quite vocal about the poor quality of your app and some will even put alerts up on the ‘net about scams that lead back to your publisher or development company. (I’m one of them, by the way.) Instead of pouring any resources into fraudulent activity, use those resources to make your product better.
Second, to unaware consumers: do your research before parting with you money. Read the bad reviews, not just the ones the site posts on the top. And if a 5-star review is one sentence, immediately suspect it as a false review. Sure some people only string together one sentence in praise, and not everyone has time for a thoughtful review. Luckily most sites can help you distinguish false reviews from real reviews.
The first thing to do when you see a one sentence review is to analyze if it is a generic review, not mentioning the product or any specific features. “This is a great program!” “Buy it!!!” or sentences with poor grammar are often the first clue. Another clue is if their name such as “oggbogg234” could have been generated by a computer. Basically, many of the fake reviews and user names are kicked out by scripts on a computer and are easy to spot even if you’re not very familiar with them.
On better review systems you can check out the reviewers other contributions: click on the name of the person who posted it to go to their profile if possible. I’ve seen reviews from fake accounts for the same group of apps (often from the same publisher) all 5 star. All positive 5-star reviews can either be a computer or a person with very low expectations — usually the former. Even if a review is from a real person, look at their other reviews and figure out their level of sophistication. Some people review things and are not as demanding as you are, and might not care about having a feature you really want.
Third, to the people running the stores: police your reviews. Task a group with the goal of weeding out fake reviews, whether or not they’re positive or negative. Again, by having credible reviews you increase the likelihood of people trying products, and the benefit of maintaining a review integrity team will not be obvious, but it will be there. Also, in the interest of positive marketing, announce to your customers that you’re implementing such a team and ways they can help. If you can, take it one step further by including a link next to each review for customers to flag suspicious reviews for your team to look at (allow the user to include an explanation of why they flagged the app to help your team). Often giving people a fast, easy, secure way to help you police your site not only builds confidence but also cuts resources needed to police your site.
To help your team, use data-mining techniques to spot patterns that indicate false accounts and fake reviews. The first week or month after an app comes out, attach a monitoring script to it that looks for a larger number of reviews coming in than normal and filter by highlighting 1 star and 5 star reviews. Allow cross-referencing the same IP/network source, the same account giving short reviews all good or all bad, and publishers with a reviewer correlation. After the initial period translate the publisher’s record into dynamic “trust-rating” — the higher the rating the less often that publishers apps and reviews are inspected. If you really want to encourage publisher not to game the system: publish the publisher’s trust rating and their overall app rating to you store. (There are a few other techniques I could mention, but by posting them I would hinder their effectiveness.)
Lastly, once a review has been flagged and cleared as a real review, place a green flag or some other indicator next to it to signal to others that it has been looked into so your support team is not inundated with the same reviews being flagged over and over. Still allow the flagging, but each investigation yields a green flag next to the review.
One last thing, the best customer-centric product sites not only list the rating of the product being looked at but also list similar competing products along with their rating. MacUpdate.com does a great job of this by including the ability for registered users to submit similar apps and a way for those apps to be voted up or down.
As a consumer, you can also mention competing apps in you review, and in the interest of full disclosure, mention if you have any affiliation with the product or competing products under review (If you do have a professional connection with the company, the FTC requires you to mention it—not doing so is illegal, and you could face fines). If you make a buck by recommending a product or competitor, then mention that: it’s the law. Also check out my How to Write a Product Review article.
Update: Apple recently send word to its App Store developers that gaming the system can get their app removed and result in losing their developer license.