Amazon is failing to deal with a flood of fake reviews for its products.
That's the warning from Which? after it looked at hundreds of products over 14 categories including headphones, smart watches and dash cams.
Many unknown brands had a large number of suspiciously good reviews, all put on the pages at the same time. These unknown brands tended to dominate the first pages of search results for products.
One set of headphones from unknown brand 'Celebrat' had 439 reviews, all five-star.
Almost nine in 10 reviews analysed by Which? were unverified, meaning it's not clear if the customer ever bought or owned the product.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of home products and services, warned that "Amazon is losing the battle against fake reviews" and called on the retail giant to “do more to purge its websites of unreliable and fake reviews if it is to maintain the trust of its millions of customers."
Amazon claims it uses investigation teams and automated technology to spot fake reviews.
In this article, we explain why Amazon is struggling to tackle the issue – which we first wrote about back in 2016 – and look at how you can find genuinely reliable reviews.
No end to fake reviews
UK consumers spend £23 billion a year under the influence of fake reviews, the Competition and Markets Authority estimates.
This doesn't just lead to disappointment, but sometimes serious injuries.
A report last year said that a third of people had been tricked into buying fake goods online, with a fake charger causing a fire and counterfeit teeth whiteners causing bleeding gums.
A separate study by Which? also found a number of ‘rewards for reviews’ groups on social media sites, such as ‘Amazon Deals Group’ and ‘Amazon UK Reviewers’. Some of these groups had more than 87,000 members.
Members get refunded for the products they buy, but often only if they give a five-star review.
These reviews counted as an 'Amazon Verified Purchase' because the reviewers did actually buy the product.
With so many Amazon user reviews potentially suspect, you may want to look elsewhere next time you're shopping.
Where to find trustworthy reviews
You can find reviews by genuine experts on a number of free websites.
In fact, these websites may be a good place to start looking for a product as many include 'best buys' or recommended product lists.
They generally make money from adverts, or if you click on a link to a product through their website.
Just check the date of the review - given the speed at which electronics, for example, improves, the expert's comparison of different products 12 months ago may now be out of date.
For electronics consider CNET, TechAdviser, TechRadar and WhatHifi.
For white goods you could look at Appliance Reviewer, Expert Reviews, Good Housekeeping, T3 or Which?, although note that the latter is a paid-for subscription service.
National newspapers occasionally do product reviews although the reviewers may not know as much about the subject as the abovementioned specialist sites.
How to spot fake online reviews
Unfortunately, expert reviews tend to mainly cover big-brand items. For lesser-known but potentially bargain items you'll need to do your own homework.
The bogus reviews issue doesn’t just impact big websites like Amazon; they can pop up all over the web.
Here are some tips on how to spot fake reviews when you're shopping for products or services online.
Use a checking website
ReviewMeta and Fakespot are websites that will check the trustworthiness of reviews – you simply enter the product URL. It gives you an adjusted star rating for the product after removing suspicious entries. Whilst useful, this is not an exact science.
Be wary of short posts
The reviewer may be keeping things brief just so they can place a star rating to impact the overall rating of the product.
Don’t trust reviews lacking details
A fake reviewer won’t have come into contact with a product or service so will offer very vague comments that lack useful details like how a product fits, the real-life colour or how it operates. An authentic review should have more specific information.
Examine the language
A good sign a review is fake is the use of over-emotional language. If the review has been paid for, the post will probably contain many uses of dramatic, positive words like ‘wonderful’ or ‘amazing’.
On the other hand, if the comment is being posted by a rival or enemy it will contain negative words like ‘pathetic’ or ‘rubbish’. Be wary of reviews with product names or jargon too.
Discount the highest and lowest ratings
For a more accurate assessment, look at reviews from users that have given the item two-, three- or four-stars to get a more balanced assessment of the item you are looking to buy.
Check out the reviewer
Amazon cross-references user reviews with their buyer database, so these people are ‘verified purchasers’. However, due to the problem of review groups, these reviewers can't all be trusted.
Look at the timing and number of reviews
If there have been multiple positive reviews in a short time, especially for a new product they may be bogus.
How can Amazon stop fake reviews?
The most obvious way to limit fake reviews is to check all of them before they appear on the website.
However, given the sheer size of Amazon, this would be a huge and costly endeavour. And even then it's likely some fake reviews will slip through.
Other online shopping sites use services like Revoo, which tracks down real customers and asks them to review the product.
Another solution would be for Amazon to offer refunds on five-star rated products that don't perform. However, given that many products on Amazon are actually sold by other sellers, this could be difficult to enforce.
Or is it time to get rid of user reviews altogether?
How would you solve the problem? Should Amazon approve all reviews before posting them, or would that be impractical? Please give us your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.