Why we need to fight fake reviews
As a business owner, are you tempted to slip in a few positive reviews since you think everyone is doing it? Resist, says Contributor Wesley Young.
I have a growing concern about fake online content.
Last year, I wrote an article about eight different types of fake content and how the epidemic would hurt local search. It seems the problem is continuing to get worse, much worse.
Perhaps the most outrageous example of fake online content in the past year is the story of the Shed at Dulwich (the Shed). While this specific example itself doesn’t have much long-term impact on the industry, it does aptly illustrate how deeply both consumers and online sources can be so easily conned.
The Shed was an experiment dreamt up by Oobah Butler, who had previously been making ends meet as a “reviews-for-hire” writer. Based on his experience, he wanted to test how far he could fake it online by posting made-up reviews of a completely imaginary venue — a restaurant called the Shed at Dulwich.
The name came from the disarray in his backyard and the pictures on his website were of dishes thrown together from common household items and his own body parts. He used a toilet bowl puck and food coloring in one picture and a partial view of the heel of his foot in another.
Butler created a TripAdvisor profile for the Shed to launch his fake restaurant and test the impact of his reviews. As expected, it started dead last for restaurants in London on the site, ranked #18,149. But by gaming the system with fake reviews, the Shed slowly began to creep up in the rankings.
In order to prevent real customers from showing up and to create a mystique behind it, dining was advertised as by appointment only. He told the increasing number of callers that the restaurant was completely booked, which only seemed to have the effect of driving up the restaurant’s online reputation. Real consumers started posting real reviews on TripAdvisor about the Shed based on conjecture.
Incredibly, after 11 months of the hoax taking on a life of its own, the Shed became the #1 ranked restaurant in all of London on TripAdvisor. The restaurant rose over 18,000 spots in the rankings based on fake reviews and made-up phone calls.
This despite the fact that not a single real customer had visited the “restaurant.” Eventually, Butler did invite some customers to his backyard for a meal and managed to complete his illusion despite serving microwave lasagna and packaged entrees.
The story itself has limited real-life impact. TripAdvisor explained the fake site wasn’t caught because such a scenario is so unrealistic and the company doesn’t look for false businesses.
But the real-life application is significant: Can we trust the information we’re seeing online?