Market analysts and consumer watchdogs have welcomed a fake review probe from the UK competition regulator into Google and Amazon.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced on Friday that it would launch an official investigation into fake reviews on Google and Amazon’s platforms. The probe will seek to determine whether the two tech titans have done enough to ensure that only trusted reviews are posted on their platforms.

The CMA probe follows from an initial investigation opened in May 2020. The preliminary findings raised concerns about Google and Amazon’s ability or otherwise to detect misleading reviews. For instance, the CMA is worried that the two firms fail to detect suspicious behaviour or to ensure that reviewers haven’t been paid to post their views.

The market watchdog is also troubled by a suspected inability to swiftly investigate, remove and take other actions when a fake review has been flagged as well as not establishing proper sanction to deter known miscreants from repeating the offence.

“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive at the CMA.

“Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.”

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No formal decision has yet been made by the CMA, but the regulator warns that if Google and Amazon are found to have been lenient in their response to the fake reviews scourge, further legal sanctions could be instigated.

The probe builds on the actions the CMA took in 2020 to force Facebook, Instagram and eBay to do more to stop the fake reviews trade on their platforms.

Google and Amazon probe “Long overdue”

Fake reviews is nothing new. Organisations aiming to shield consumers from unscrupulous organisations have warned about fake reviews for years.

UK consumer watchdog Which? has been one of the more prolific organisations holding businesses like Google and Amazon to account. In a series of recent investigations it has uncovered a thriving fake review industry in Britain.

In February it reported that one of its investigations had found 10 sites offering review manipulation services for Amazon Marketplace where sellers could buy 50 positive reviews for as little as £620 or a thousand for £8,000. In March, a subsequent probe unearthed a similar counterfeit market for Google reviews. Unsurprisingly, Which? welcomed the new CMA probe.

“We have repeatedly exposed fake reviews on websites including Amazon and Google, so this investigation is a positive step,” said Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at Which?. “The CMA must now move swiftly towards establishing whether these companies have broken the law.

“This should prompt Amazon and Google to finally take the necessary steps to protect users from the growing tide of fake reviews on their platforms and, if they fail to do so, the regulator must be prepared to take strong enforcement action.

“The government must also give online platforms greater legal responsibility for tackling fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including fake and misleading review activity.”

Concha is not alone in welcoming the CMA’s probe into Google and Amazon.

“I think this probe is long overdue,” said Thomas Vosper, CEO and founder of ecommerce marketplace aisle 3 and previous Amazon employee. “The ratings system is broken and must be fixed and this probe could be the first step toward this.”

Looking back at his own experience working with Amazon, Vosper claims to recall how a smattering of fake reviews which were obvious jokes caused a run for Veet hair removal products. Amazon didn’t comment on Verdict‘s request to confirm whether this happened or not.

“However, now customers are increasingly distrusting all reviews – leaving a ‘boy who cried wolf’ aspect to genuinely positive ones,” he added.

Nothing to see here

Despite the revelations of consumer watchdogs and the CMA probe, Google and Amazon have denied that they aren’t doing enough to prevent the plague of fake reviews from spreading.

“To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store,” an Amazon spokesperson told Verdict.

“We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product. We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”

The spokesperson also highlighted how it stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were seen by customers in 2020 and that it has won dozens of injections against European fake review providers.

Google offered a similar corporate copy-paste response to the CMA probe.

“Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take action – from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts,” a Google spokesperson said. “We look forward to continuing our work with the CMA to share more on how our industry-leading technology and review teams work to help users find relevant and useful information on Google.”

Not just Google and Amazon

While the CMA has yet to make an official ruling on whether or not Google and Amazon have broken the rules, it is important to recognise that the problem of fake reviews is by no means confined to these two platforms.

As noted earlier, platforms like Facebook and eBay have also faced CMA probes in the past. Other independent investigations have also implicated sites like Trustpilot and TripAdvisor, allegations that are often met with assurances from the platforms that they are working hard to combat fake reviews.

“The [CMA] investigation into Amazon and Google demonstrates that fake online reviews are becoming a prevalent problem we should all take seriously,” said Tony Wheble, CEO of customer review platform Feefo. “I’m sure the CMA’s investigation will provide guidance for the whole industry to take steps to improve and build consumer trust.”