Consumer watchdog Which? has called for Google to do more to tackle fake reviews after finding a booming counterfeit ratings industry.
The organisation’s latest investigation has revealed that the Mountain View-headquartered company still struggles to remove fraudulent reviews in its search results, despite efforts to “invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices” to do so.
As part of its investigation, Which? created a fake business listing called Five Star Reviews and bought 20 Google reviews for £108 from review site Reviewr. Researchers were able to specify the number of five star reviews Reviewr would leave each day. As a result, a number of reviews praising the bogus business were left by a variety of Google accounts.
Which? uncovered 45 businesses – 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 – that had all been endorsed by the same Google accounts that left reviews on its fake business, suggesting they had been paid for.
During the investigation, Which? uncovered four other review sites – AppSally, BuyServiceUSA, DripFeedReviews and Link Building Services – which it claimed appear to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk.
The news comes as the Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating the problem of fake reviews.
“Businesses exploiting flaws in Google’s review system to rise up the ranks are putting other honest businesses on the back foot and leaving consumers at risk of being misled,” said Natalie Hitchins, head of home products and services at Which?. “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 see.”
Once presented with the findings, Google shut down Five Star Reviews.
A Google spokesperson told Which?: “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.”
According to Qualtrics, 93% of customers read online reviews before buying a product. There have been calls for the UK government to do more to address the issue of fake online reviews after it was omitted from its proposed Online Safety Bill.