Insider Tips on How to Avoid Falling for Fake Reviews

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Fake news has been a major catch phrase over the past year, but what about fake reviews? Fake reviews pose an even bigger problem because they have a more personal impact and they are harder to spot.

We love Amazon, TripAdvisor, and other sites for their reviews and use them to make major purchasing decisions. They’ve changed the way we shop with most of us checking reviews before purchasing.

Rise in reviews help avoid the lemons and make more informed decisions – but only if they are trustworthy!

What we’ve found over the last twenty years of doing this (YIKES – has it really been that long?) is that it’s okay to rely on reviews, but you need to dig a little bit.

Fake reviews catapult fake restaurant to #1 on TripAdvisor

Yes, the headline is true. TripAdvisor was totally fooled into ranking a non-existent restaurant, The Shed at DulWich, into the number one place to eat in London. Twitter and the web is buzzing about OObah Butler’s tale of how he turned his back yard shed into a sensation in a short six months.

Butler did this with:

  • burner phone
  • very basic website
  • a quirky menu concept
  • ‘soft focus’ food pics made from household items
  • some friends & fakes

First off, after a good long laugh, I want to cry. If he can rank this high in only six months based on a total lie, why can’t I rank higher with something real?

Then I think about all of the poor people who have been working so hard at building their restaurant for years and were outranked so easily by smoke and mirrors. Me thinks there might be a bit of a backlash or changes because of this.

What is really shocking is that this restaurant ranked as being vegetarian and vegan friendly with a menu full of meat items – including “vegan clams”? One of the items is served in a 600TC Egyptian cotton bowl. Doesn’t anyone realize that mac-n-cheese in a high thread count cotton bowl is ………not a good idea at best?

Also, a couple living in the same neighborhood, who had never seen this restaurant, tried to make reservations?

What this seems like is a cautionary tale similar to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” People clearly got so caught up in ‘the next new thing’ that they suspended all reason.

This story and recent stories with others started me thinking. What are some of the things we consider while evaluating reviews?

Fake reviews and gaming the rating system

Somewhat ironically, Oohbah Butler had a job writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor for businesses. Restaurant owners paid him ten British Pounds for a positive review even though he didn’t eat there. Unethical? I would say yes. Uncommon? Not necessarily.

As long as there is a system there will be people trying to get around it. Look at sports and doping. Just like sports, there is a huge monetary gain in top ratings. Star rating is the number one factor used by consumers to judge a business.ⁱ

Unfortunately, too many of us stop there.

The Number of Reviews Consumers Read to Form an Opinionⁱ

Number of Reviews Read Percent of Consumers
1 – 3 40%
≤ 6 73%
≤ 10 88%
10+ 12%


Sometimes this is enough. When a product or company has hundreds or thousands of reviews and has a 4+ rating, a couple of reviews is probably adequate. When less than 100 reviews are available, I find a little due diligence goes a long way.

Below are some things to look for.

Look out for friends & family reviews

Friends, family, and employee type reviews are common when just starting out or to counteract bad reviews. These types of reviews have a few major things in common:

  • Always have a 5 star rating
  • Reviewer has only done a few reviews – often only one
  • Usually a short paragraph or one sentence
  • Gives little to no detail and gushes
  • If details are given they sound like an advertisement
  • Fairly small overall number of reviews, but a burst of them are done in a relatively short period of time
  • Often are the first few reviews or appear after a bad review is given

When I run across these reviews I discount them. Usually, this applies more to the first 100 reviews.

Looking at the fake reviews of The Shed from the archived TripAdvisor page, they have many of these same characteristics that should have been a red flag.

Up-votes on reviews can also be unreliable

When we were in Bonaire we ate at, and enjoyed, a new food truck. We chose it over the #1 rated place to eat – another food truck at the same beach – because we didn’t want to wait in line, the food looked interesting, and they provided a shady place to eat.

While we were enjoying our lunch, the owner asked for feedback then asked us to review on TripAdvisor. I wrote an honest and glowing review (we traveled back to that beach the next day for a repeat). Almost immediately after posting my review it received an up-vote – from the owner.

I’m certain it was only because of the quality of my delightfully insightful, and perceptive review. Maybe it was similar to a thanks, high-five or smiley face from them? It did give me pause and now I look at up-votes a bit closer.

Of course, owners may also down-vote reviews they don’t like. If it seems like the business is doing this instead of replying to bad reviews I avoid them. After some experience I’ve had, this is a red flag for poor customer service.

Competitors are trying to discredit them

We’ve all seen the reviews where there is a simple statement that it is junk, doesn’t work, buy someplace else – often in all caps. No other information or specifics are given.

Some of them will even have a link to a competitive product or specifically name a given product.

What to look for with high and low ratings and reviews

If a business or product has a number of high and low reviews it usually points to a few things. Look at a sampling of reviews with high and low ratings. Do the low ratings have a consistent theme?

Reviews reflect different personnel

In June I went to a nail salon with my sister for a pedicure as part of a birthday gift. We sat side-by-side and had completely different experiences. While she had a good experience, my nail tech was checked out and did an awful job. She would give them four stars while I had more of a two star experience.

Insider tip: If a service business has a large range of ratings, skim them to look for recommendations and complaints with specific personnel or services.

While the salon had a couple of good reviews for this service, the same couple of names were listed in them. My tech’s name was not one of them.

Reviews reflect different products or services

In the example of the bad pedicure experience above, close inspection of the high rating was related to the hair salon portion of the business.

Sometimes the rating will reflect the product, but some other feature of the experience like shipping and delivery.

When I purchased a case for my iphone, the ratings were fantastic. It wasn’t until the hinge for the cover flap started failing almost immediately that I realized most of reviews were for the version without the hinged cover flap. This was an easy thing to miss since this version originally was on a separate product page. Amazon had combined the ratings for both products and eventually featured them together on one page.

Reviews reflect a change in the business

For products, high and low ratings can point out quality problems. If the low ratings are old and seem to have been fixed that’s a good sign. If the ratings have declined recently or at a certain point it may be because of ‘cost saving’ design changes or new suppliers who aren’t making the grade.

Insider tip: Look for trends in the ratings especially over time or when there is a change.

Changes in management, renovations, and environmental changes can have a significant, and often sudden impact in ratings and review. We find this to be a crucial consideration when evaluating hotels.

Should you read one and five star rating reviews?

For years I passed on reading reviews with one and five star ratings believing that a more realistic, measured opinion could be found by focusing on the middle ratings. Based on this bias I was also hesitant to give one star, and would often bump up the rating to two stars.

Over time, I’ve adjusted that opinion based on experience.

By giving a two star instead of a one star rating, atrociously poor performance is not fairly represented in the overall rating. Neither is an extraordinary experience.

Mistakes happen. It’s how you deal with them that counts. One and five star reviews show you the best and worst.

One star review: Making an enemy for life

I went to a local auto repair shop, Europros, and had a horrendous experience. The owner actually tried to convince me that a) the stuttering in my soft top control was by design too allow gravity to lower it, and b) I should be satisfied that the top even moved and shouldn’t expect more.

He did not fixed the problem I had contracted him to do, and refused to do anything to rectify the problem. The owner even refused to give me the error codes unless I paid him more money.

I wrote a poor review on Google and received a phone call from him within two hours of posting. He threatened, bullied and harassed me over multiple phone calls trying to have me retract the review. When that didn’t work he told me he would have his attorney get my review removed.

Not surprisingly, I take every opportunity to share this horrible experience.

Insider tip: If you see a credible story of an owner harassing people for poor reviews up-vote the review. Don’t let companies bury bad behavior.

When several reviews are clearly related to the same issue are they fake reviews?

We’ve all run across a series of two to five reviews, written over a short period of time, describing a very similar issue in almost the same way. Often the people seem almost unhinged as they rant about a bad experience.

This is another version of the friends and family reviews done by

Five star review: Turning things around through great customer service

On the opposite spectrum, I purchased a Doxie One scanner and wrote a less than wonderful review because the unit didn’t work consistently on battery power.

The company called me! They asked a number of questions to find the problem, which was that I was using the wrong type of battery. I would have been happy at that point but they went the extra mile and sent me the correct batteries.

Yes, I went back to adjust my rating and update my review. Yes, I love to tell the story and encourage people to look at their products. When we up-vote these reviews we encourage this type of behavior!

Reviews are a powerful tool – if used properly.

What have you learned from your use of reviews?