Millions of consumers look at online references to followers, likes and shares to try to determine if a business is popular and legitimate before deciding to spend their money there.
But how much can you trust a company’s online reputation?
CBC’s Marketplace investigated how companies artificially inflate their online credibility through paid testimonials and fake reviews.
Marketplace set up a fake business to test how easy it is to buy a good reputation online. The Marketplace investigation, “Faking It,” airs Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television.
“I think it’s really amazing how easy it is to purchase deception now on the internet,” says Jeff Hancock, a professor who researches online language and behaviour at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
“You can get fake likes, you can get fake comments, fake reviews, fake everything.”
So why do we fall for companies’ fake reviews and false reputation?
“We believe other people,” Hancock told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson. “It’s actually the foundation of how, I think, language and society work.”
For some companies looking to look good online, there are lots of ways they can try to boost their business. Here are four ways that companies can fake it online.
Research published by the Harvard Business School in 2011 found that a one-star increase on the popular review site Yelp meant a five to nine per cent increase in revenue for independent restaurants.
“If you’re an owner of property that gets reviewed — and there is hardly anything that isn’t reviewed now — there is real pressure to have good online reviews because if you don’t, your business is gonna be hurt,” says Hancock.
A 2012 study from IT research analysts Gartner found that 10 to 15 per cent of reviews on social media are fake.
Last year, New York state cracked down on fake reviews, setting up a fake business and buying fake reviews in a sting operation dubbed Operation Clean Turf. It fined 19 businesses a total of $350,000 US.
"Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing," New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman wrote in a news release, describing the practice as false advertising.
Some internet marketing and online reputation management companies bolster a business’s online image with fake testimonials on a variety of popular review websites for a price.
Other websites connect businesses with freelancers who post fake reviews. Marketplace paid as little as $5 for testimonials about its fake business.
Review sites like Yelp and Google say they do what they can to delete fake reviews.
In a statement to Marketplace, Google said that the company takes down thousands of suspicious reviews down every month, but “there is a small subset of bad apples out there.”
“We take verification very seriously and have several processes in place to authenticate businesses and remove false reviews, including a link next to each review allowing users to help flag suspicious reviews for us.“
Fake YouTube views
With more than 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it can be hard for companies to compete for video views.
But Marketplace found it was easy to buy them, and inexpensive; the show bought 10,000 video views from a company for its video promoting its fake business. The cost? Thirty dollars.
In December 2012, YouTube stripped almost two billion fake views from music videos from major labels including Universal, Sony/BMG and RCA.
In February, Google, which owns YouTube, announced that it was increasing efforts to audit video views and remove fake views from the site.
Software engineer PhilippPfeiffenberger wrote in a blog post: “When some bad actors try to game the system by artificially inflating view counts, they’re not just misleading fans about the popularity of a video, they’re undermining one of YouTube’s most important and unique qualities.”
Fake Twitter followers
Last year, Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo DeMicheli researched fake Twitter followers. They estimated that four per cent — or 20 million — Twitter accounts were fake.
According to the researchers, fake Twitter accounts have become a multimillion-dollar business.
Research by internet security analysts at Barracuda Labs found that as of the end of 2013, there were 52 sellers on eBay selling fake Twitter followers, a number that more than doubled in roughly six months.
How much does a fake follower go for? Not a lot: the cost was an average of $11 per 1,000 followers.
Twitter’s rules prohibit buying and selling fake followers.
“When you purchase followers, retweets and favourites, you are often purchasing bot (fake) or hacked accounts,” the site reads.
“Any account caught participating in this behavior will be in violation of the Twitter rules and may be suspended.”
Fake Facebook likes
Facebook is another platform popular for posers. The company estimates that as many as 1.2 per cent of accounts are fake, but with 1.2 billion active monthly users, that number represents as many as 14 million fake accounts.
Like many other sites, Facebook says it tries to crack down on fakers.
“Fraudulent activity is bad for everyone — including page owners, advertisers, Facebook and people on our platform,” wrote Facebook site integrity engineer Matt Jones in a blog post last month.
“We adapt our defences constantly to stay ahead of spammers’ techniques, and one area we’ve focused on for several years is fake likes.”
Hancock says that while some reviews are fake, many are honest and useful.
“Most businesses really want to provide a genuine service; most businesses are real,” he says.
“The ones that do take the risk and they’re desperate and buy some fake support, some fake reviews, some fake likes, this is not going to be a long-term business.
“It’s going to damage the reputation in the long run. If I had one piece of advice, not for the consumers but for business owners, don’t do it. It’s too easy to get caught. One of the main things with deception on the internet: it leaves a record.”