Online selling: not always honest
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  • Product reviews are a critical tool used by online shops to sell more products.
  • But fake reviews are common on e-commerce websites - particularly those that offer third-party marketplaces.
  • South African online stores have some checks in place in combat fake reviews.
  • Even so, fake reviews are still prevalent - and spotting them can help avoid a dud.
  • Here's how.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Reviews left for products on online stores are a great way for stores to increase product sales. 

A product on Amazon that has just one review is 65% more likely to be purchased than a product that has none, according to Power Reviews CEO Matt Moog. And about 33% of online shoppers won’t purchase products unless they have seen positive feedback from other shoppers.

This is presumably why most of South Africa’s leading online stores now have some form of product rate and review system integrated into their platforms.

The reviews aren't always legitimate or truly impartial, however. Online reviews for products on websites whose sole aim is to make you buy those very items are almost by definition compromised. They have also almost always been controversial, with mega-retailers like Amazon beset by false reviews in the past.

Various studies have tested the reliability of reviews on Amazon. In 2017, the UK consumer group Which? looked at various listings for headphones on Amazon, and found that around 87% of some 12,000 reviews were unverified - and potentially put there by sellers to increase sales.

Third-party marketplaces, like those offered both Amazon and Takealot, are most vulnerable to fake reviews or rating manipulation - but Amazon’s verified reviews policy does allow more scrupulous shoppers to identify reviews left by a legitimate owner of the product.

South Africa's review reliability

Most South African website have, taken slightly different approaches to their online review system - with few opting for an Amazon-style verified review process. This makes it difficult to identify at a glance which reviews are legitimate, and which might have been left by those with a vested interest.

Although from a user perspective Takealot does not have a verified review system like Amazon, a Takealot spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa the online store won't publish reviews from people who haven't bought the product through the platform. Although anyone can rate and review any product, Takealot checks whether the reviewer has purchased the product before activating it on the site.

"Anybody is able to submit a review, however, is it not published immediately," the spokesperson told Business Insider. "The Takealot review moderation process checks whether the product has been purchased on Takealot by the reviewer before it is approved and published. If a reviewer has not purchased the product, the review is rejected and not published."

Kitchen store YuppieChef will, on the other hand, publish a review from anyone - even those who haven't bought the product on their website. But they do allow shoppers to filter these out by only viewing those that are left by verified owners.

Business Insider was able to leave a review on a product purchased elsewhere that was later published on the website. This could, in theory, leave the store's reviews open to manipulation - though without a third party marketplace, positive or negative reviews only stand to benefit the brands in question, and not an individual third-party seller's bottomline.

Although anyone can leave a review, YuppieChef does, however, add a "Verified Owner" badge to reviews left by people who purchased the items with a process similar to Amazon's.

Although YuppieChef doesn't suffer from the scourge of problematic reviews often associated with third-party marketplaces, its list of curated products that rely on reviews presents another problem to consumers. The store retains “full discretion as to whether or not to publish (or remove) your review and rating”, and one YuppieChef client told Business Insider that his negative review of a product did not appear on the website after he was contacted by the company, and agreed to exchange the product instead.

Reviews-for-cash schemes

Although fake reviews can spring up anywhere, they are particularly difficult to manage on marketplace platforms, where positive reviews can make or break a third-party seller. Because of this, third-party sellers have employed several tricks to make their products receive higher reviews, and rank better among the thousands of competitors.

One of the core tactics they use is to incentivise shoppers to leave positive reviews - either with free products or vouchers that can be used for future purchases. Amazon sellers have in the past been accused of bribing users with money and gift vouchers in exchange for five-star reviews.

Takealot specifically bans this practice in its Sellers Compliance Guidelines, which state that "[p]roduct review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited." Takealot also prohibits marketplace sellers from asking customers to remove negative reviews.

However, Business Insider has seen one example of a seller who inserted a letter into a product that pushes the limits on these guidelines. It requests direct correspondence (rather than via Takealot) if there are any concerns about product quality, and to leave a review on Takealot for the product "that would really help with our ratings".

Spotting fake reviews

Even with the best checks and balances, fake reviews will get through - and not all online reviews are reliable. In most cases, the onus largely falls on shoppers to look for Verified Owner badges, being suspicious of all ratings, and by identifying some of the warning signs of fake reviews:

  • If a product - when considering its pricing and its glowing reviews - looks too good to be true, there's a good chance that it is.
  • It's also fair to be sceptical if a product has a vast number of five-star ratings - and brief, shallow or repetitive written accompaniments.
  • A slew of reviews submitted in quick succession may indicate an attempt to drown out negative reviews.
  • And reviews without names, and repetitive spelling errors or patterns across multiple independent submissions, may well raise red flags.

Some third-party tools also exist to help spot fake reviews when shopping on Amazon - including FakeSpot and ReviewMeta

However, no such tool exists that works for South Africa’s leading online stores. And in the absence of such software, it’s best to treat all online product reviews on local websites with some degree of scepticism - and when in doubt, cross-check products on more legitimate third-party review websites, rather than on the site trying to close the deal, before making the purchase.

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