The Weird Reason Consumers Write Bad Online Reviews for Products They Never Bought

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It’s not complicated why people write fake online reviews: The goal is to help a company out, either by praising its services or products and pumping up its ratings, or by bashing the competition with a scathing critique. But researchers have another theory about why some consumers—with apparently no axe to grind or financial interests at stake—post questionable online reviews.

Researchers at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management have been sifting through hundreds of thousands of online product reviews, and in most cases, they are able to tie these reviews to specific purchase transactions. While this is one of many examples of big data analysis that may freak consumers out due to privacy concerns, what was most important to the researchers is that they could prove that the consumers penning the reviews had actually purchased the products in question.

Well, most consumers did anyway. In about 5% of the cases sampled, the researchers ruled out all possible ways that the reviewer may have gotten possession of the item, before concluding “it was very likely that these customers had never bought the product.” Further analysis of these questionable reviews showed that they were more likely to use what the experts deem to be “deceptive language,” including higher-than-average word counts and multiple exclamation points. And most importantly, these reviews were nearly twice as likely to give the product the lowest rating possible.

(MORE: Alleged Fake Online Review Spammers Get Taken to Court)

Why would consumers post bad reviews for products they’d never purchased? Boosting the sales of competing products does not appear to be a motivating force. In fact, the researchers discovered that these individuals tended to be very good customers of the companies and retailers they were reviewing, typically purchasing more than 100 items from them.

So why would this small subset of consumers want to bash the products of companies they give every indication of liking? The researchers theorize that these people view themselves as self-appointed managers who feel compelled to keep the company in line when it attempts to market an unworthy product or otherwise takes actions that could damage the brand name.

“They’re such good customers that they now feel like they should be guiding the company,” says Eric T. Anderson, a Kellogg School marketing professor involved in the research. “And when the company makes mistakes in the eyes of the consumer, they want to correct them.”

(MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews)

An inspection of the language used in these reviews turned up a disproportionately high number of phrases like “carry more” and “go back to,” leading researchers to conclude that these reviews were aimed at the company, not the general consumer who wants to know whether or not the vacuum cleaner or smartphone being reviewed is any good.

So while the typical fake review is written to deceive consumers, this breed of sketchy review has another purpose: to influence the company into doing what the reviewer wants.