How To Know if Google Reviews Are Real or Fake
Trying out a new restaurant, hair salon or doggie daycare? You’ll probably head online for Google reviews. But how do you know whether that five-star rave (or one-star rant) is real or fake? We put together this handy guide.
Why businesses fake Google reviews
Business owners know that you’re overwhelmed by all the choices you have, and they can fake Google reviews to put their thumb on the scale. Some of their tactics:
- Pay for a third-party service to push up their average rating with batches of fake five-star reviews.
- Write negative reviews of competitors. A business doesn’t have to have a five-star rating if its biggest competitor has a three-star rating.
- Offer unfair incentives in exchange for a positive review. Some businesses give gift cards to customers who rate them five stars. That’s one step up from cash bribery.
You’ll be left wondering whether that autobody shop really does know their stuff—or if they just paid for a network of bots to say that they do.
4 signs that Google review is fake
A review doesn’t need to be riddled with grammatical errors to be fake. Generative AI makes it fast and easy to write and post realistic fake reviews. Look for these subtle signals that a Google rating isn’t the real deal:
- Five stars!!! Watch out for overwhelmingly positive language and excessive punctuation. No one needs to use three exclamation marks to emphasize how much they love their local HVAC guy.
- One star—and it namedrops a competitor. If that one-star review of McDonald’s mentions how you’re better off at Burger King, it might be fake.
- Vague. An AI-generated review might contain paragraphs and paragraphs of effusive praise, but never mentions anything you couldn’t learn from the business’ website.
- Big batches. If a business had mixed reviews for years and suddenly got a dozen five-star reviews, be suspicious. Maybe it’s genuine improvement, or maybe it’s bots.
What Google—and the government—are doing to stop fake reviews
Nobody wants genuine online reviews to be mixed up with fake online reviews, not even Google. The company’s policies strictly prohibit incentivized, AI-generated or otherwise dishonest ratings. In June 2023, the tech company took legal action against one big offender that posted more than 14,000 fake reviews. In the meantime, it’s using technology to keep more from reaching your screen.
Google uses machine learning to automatically flag suspicious reviews. Human monitors take care of the rest. This protocol kept users from seeing 95 million rule-breaking reviews on Google Maps in 2021, according to Google.
The Federal Trade Commission has also stepped in—by stepping up enforcement. In 2021, it sent 700 companies a warning that they could be fined up to $43,792 for every violation.
Should you stop using Google reviews?
While Google and the U.S. government may be combating fake reviews, some still slip through the cracks. About 10% of Google reviews you see are fake, according to this 2021 Uberall study. But you shouldn’t stop reading Google reviews completely. They can still be part of a safe online shopping experience—as long as you take them with a grain of salt.
Alternatives to Google Reviews
By all means, start your shopping research by reading Google reviews. Just don’t end there.
- Authenticate reviews. You can use a service called Fakespot to check the legitimacy of many user-generated reviews.
- Read professional reviews. Your local food critic gets paid to give their informed, objective opinion about a restaurant. Review sites for specific industries hire writers who know what they’re talking about. Take their word for it.
- Word of mouth. Enhance your online review searches by asking your friends and family for recommendations and looking on local community forums.
Yes, you need to be smart about reviews you read, but hopefully regulations and your own good judgment will allow you to get the information you seek.
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