Websites that rely on user reviews and ratings often use filters to screen out opinions that are likely to be fraudulent. But the filters can only do so much. This week, Edmunds.com decided to file a lawsuit to get alleged spammers to stop flooding its ratings service with fake reviews of car dealerships.
Edmunds.com, the automotive research company, filed a lawsuit in Texas on Tuesday against Humankind, an online reputation company based in Friendswood, Tex. According to Edmunds, Humankind operates sites such as GlowingReviews.co, an “automated online ratings & reviews” service that charges $25 and up per month to post reviews at a long list of what it calls “supported sites,” including Yelp, Google+, FourSquare, CitySearch, Cars.com, and of course, Edmunds.com. Edmunds is seeking an injunction against Humankind after discovering that over the last few months the company had allegedly created more than 2,000 registrations and attempted to post dozens of bogus reviews for 25 car dealerships at Edmunds.com, violating the site’s terms of service.
Like most sites featuring user reviews, Edmunds.com stipulates in its membership agreement things like, “You agree to register only once using a single username,” and that in terms of reviews specifically, “reviews must describe your personal experience.”
On its FAQ page, Glowing Reviews acknowledges that its model breaks the rules listed in the terms of service from Edmunds and other sites. In answer to the question, “Does posting reviews with Glowing Reviews violate TOS of the assorted review sites?” Glowing Reviews admits, “In general, the review sites state that you must be posting for yourself and not for someone else. So in these cases the answer would be yes.”
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The site goes on to explain, however, that all sorts of common practices break user-review site terms of service. “Every business plays in this grey area and this service just lets you do it much more efficiently,” the FAQ page states. In essence, the company is justifying the planting of bogus reviews because everybody else is doing it.
“Given the explicit acknowledgement that they were breaking our terms of service, we felt like we had to skip the usual step of filing a cease-and-desist order,” said Ken Levin, senior executive vice president and general counsel at Edmunds.com, explaining why the company saw it necessary to file for an injunction ordering Humankind to stop posting reviews at Edmunds’ site. “[A cease-and-desist request] probably just wouldn’t be effective. In all likelihood, the response to that is ‘OK, we’ll stop.’ And then they’d start doing it again a little later.”
Multiple studies point out that online reviews can help make or break companies. According to one survey, 90% of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decisions. A highly-cited Harvard Business School study from 2011 estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant. Cornell researchers have found that a one-star swing in a hotel’s online ratings at sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor is tied to a 11% sway in room rates, on average.
Because online reviews have such impact on a business’s bottom line, it’s inevitable that hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, and other operations actively try to boost their ratings. They go about this in perfectly acceptable ways—by, say, responding and/or reaching out to customers who’ve posted negative reviews and trying to make good. And sometimes, businesses also blatantly try to game the system by flooding sites with fake reviews.
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In the recent past, the marketplace for writing fake reviews has operated pretty much out in the open, with businesses paying $1, sometimes more, for an endorsement on a user review site. There have also been some high-profile instances of individuals who are in no position to be writing authentic reviews, such as a recent case in which a hotel executive was busted posting dozens of anonymous reviews of properties on TripAdvisor. The research firm Gartner has estimated that by 2014, 10% to 15% of all online reviews will be fakes.
As efforts to plant fake reviews and manipulate ratings have proliferated, so have systems aimed at filtering out dubious opinions on user review sites—whose business model is based on the trustworthiness of reviews. Something of a cat-and-mouse game has developed. Last summer, Google+ Local deleted hundreds of car dealership reviews after finding them suspect, and earlier this year it warned hotels that “fake glowing testimonies” posted by reputation management operations would be removed.
Yelp, the granddaddy of review sites, has a reputation for an especially aggressive filter. Many business owners and reviewers complain that perfectly legitimate reviews sometimes get flagged by Yelp’s algorithms and stuck in the site’s review filter section. “Yelp has made a business of protecting consumers, to the point that some legitimate content is sacrificed to make sure the shady stuff is suppressed,” said Luther Lowe, Yelp’s public affairs director. “It’s a high cost we accept to avoid the infinitely higher cost of having a review website people can’t trust.”
In recent months, Yelp has also been conducting sting operations on businesses attempting to purchase and post fake reviews. They respond to ads requesting review writers, and then post a “Consumer Alert” to shame the company in its listing on Yelp, explaining, “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business.”
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Lowe said that he had no specific knowledge of GlowingReviews.co or Humankind, but that “they’re not the only ones out there” trying to get fake reviews posted. As for the phrase—”supported sites”—that Glowing Reviews uses to describe Yelp and other sites, Lowe laughed at the connotation these “snake oil guys” were somehow working with Yelp. “They’re definitely not our partners,” said Lowe. “The site flies in the face everything we stand for.”
Edmunds.com’s Levin explained that the automotive website filters out sketchy and inappropriate reviews the old-fashioned way: Actual human employees read them. The first questionable review was detected in January. “It never went live,” Levin said. “It was blocked right away.”
More and more reviews came in that raised the eyebrows of Edmunds.com staffers, and after looking into the situation further it was discovered that they all originated from the same source. “They’re still submitting reviews,” said Levin. “Every day there’s more.”
Edmunds didn’t release the names of car dealerships allegedly doing business with Glowing Reviews, but the automotive research company e-mailed TIME a few samples of the reviews that were blocked. Indeed, they were all glowing. “I was very happy with the Advisor, he even gave me his cell phone number. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, even those who weren’t working on my car,” one review stated. And here’s another: “Well worth the money! Amazing service, highly recommended! Do not bother looking anywhere else, these guys will take good care of you.”
Edmunds.com staffers noticed that some of the reviews it flagged as fraudulent have popped up on other review sites, including Yelp, Levin said. “Sometimes they’re filtered out, sometimes not,” he said.
As of last week, Edmunds says it had detected 2,063 registrations on its site created specifically for the purposes of posting fraudulent reviews. “We can confirm that they have submitted 76 reviews, all blocked,” an Edmunds.com statement read. “These reviews were submitted for 25 different dealerships.”
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Why are there so many more registrations than there are reviews? One of Glowing Reviews’ YouTube videos explains that “an account that’s been aged” is more likely to be accepted as legitimate by a review site. “There’s going to appear to be a real person there,” one representative for Glowing Reviews says.
Levin also noticed something curious about all of the reviews posted by this company: They were all purportedly written by women. “My guess is that they think women have inherently better credibility,” said Levin. Glowing Reviews’ FAQ page states that clients can’t specify gender in their requests for reviews, partly because accounts must be created in advance in order to “age.”
We reached out for comment to Glowing Reviews and Humankind, and will post a response if and when we hear anything.
UPDATE (July 24): Justin Anderson, owner of Humankind, did not directly address the allegations in the Edmunds.com lawsuit, but said, “I can say that we completely disagree with the assertion that we are posting fraudulent reviews online.”
He claims that the reviews are not fake. Instead, Anderson said that his company instructs businesses on how to solicit reviews from customers, and then Humankind posts those opinions onto user review sites with accounts that it created. Edmunds.com’s Levin said that he could not be sure who was writing the reviews it deemed to be fraudulent, but that was certain Humankind was violating the site’s terms of service.