I studied 9 million reviews left for 198,000 businesses on the Trustpilot UK website to reveal how companies are deceiving consumers by manipulating their reviews on Trustpilot.
This article explains how they do it and and reveals the worst offenders.
An increasing number of people use the web to research businesses before purchasing a product or service. As part of my SEO training, I often recommend to clients that they do everything possible to enhance their online reputation.
A recent study by BrightLocal showed that 86% of consumers consider online reviews when making a purchase. 68% agreed that positive reviews make it more likely they will buy from the business; while 40% say that negative reviews make it less likely.
68% of consumers agree that positive online reviews make it more likely they will buy from a business; while 40% say that negative reviews make it less likely. Click To Tweet
Although the vast majority of companies do not manipulate their online reviews, consumers should be able to rely on this information when making important purchasing decisions.
When companies manipulate their reviews to paint a false picture about their business, it has a detrimental effect on both consumers and honest businesses that may appear less attractive in comparison.
Although businesses owners found guilty of review fraud could face a prison term of up to 10 years or a fine; prosecutions and convictions are rare and seldom policed.
In this post, I will reveal the methods these businesses use to help you spot this manipulation and reveal the worst offenders.
What is Review Gating?
Review Gating is the process of filtering customers before asking them to leave a review for your business. The aim is to encourage reviews from only customers you believe had a positive experience with your company and ask for private feedback (or none at all) from those with a negative experience.
Although review gating doesn’t entirely remove the possibility of negative comments, it can significantly reduce the ratio of negative to positive reviews. Over time, negative reviews are pushed deeper into the review feed, and the company’s average review rating remains positive.
Most of the major review publishing platforms, including Trustpilot and Google, warn against this illegal practice in their guidelines but take little or no action against those companies found to be in breach.
How do businesses use Review Gating?
The internal memo shown below from Yell UK (formerly Yellow Pages) reveals how staff are incentivised to “ask every happy customer to write a review on Trustpilot for Yell” and to not ask if “there’s any risk [they] may leave a negative review”. Yell reward their staff with £10 for every 5-star review and £5 for every 4-star review posted.
Internal memo to Yell employees incentivising them to request 4&5-star reviews only
This memo (sent to me by a whistleblower) is a classic example of Review Gating. Despite this memo being forwarded on to Trustpilot, none of Yell’s reviews have been removed.
Some businesses use automated review management software to analyse past email communications with the customer, internal complaints records and the history of product returns. The software then sends a review request to only those customers most likely to post a positive review for the company.
What is review flagging?
Trustpilot allows businesses to flag a review for removal if it breaches any of their review guidelines. The review is then removed from the Trustpilot platform if found to be in breach. There are several grounds for which a review could be flagged.
These include (but are not limited to):
• The review contains offensive language.
• The review mentions the name of an individual.
• The review describes the functionality of the purchased product.
• The service experience has not occurred within the last 12 months.
The following fictitious reviews could all potentially be in breach of Trustpilot’s guidelines:
As you can see, it’s just as likely that a positive review could be flagged as a negative one. You can see this by analysing reviews that Trustpilot has flagged for their own business. In fact, Trustpilot has flagged more positive than negative reviews about their own company.
58% of the reviews that Trustpilot has flagged about their company are positive, 37% negative and 5% are neutral. This shows that when flagging reviews fairly, a negative review is no more likely to be in breach of Trustpilot’s guidelines than a positive one.
In a Techcrunch interview in March 2019, Trustpilot’s Founder and CEO Peter Mühlmann stated, “The vast majority of companies flag questionable reviews in exactly the right way. However, there’s a small minority that are potentially ruining it for everyone by aggressively flagging bad reviews.”
He goes on to explain, “Trustpilot now reveals how many reviews were taken down because they represented a real breach of Trustpilot’s policies, versus reviews where the poster simply didn’t respond to questions, versus legitimate reviews that were ultimately reinstated”. Mühlmann warns, “If marketers are motivated to cheat on our platform, consumers are going to see them do it.”
In fact, my research shows that businesses are 33 times more likely to flag a negative Trustpilot review than a positive review and most consumers are unaware of how to identify which reviews have been flagged.Businesses are 33 times more likely to flag a negative Trustpilot review than a positive review. Click To Tweet
Let’s look at examples of businesses that may not be flagging reviews fairly:
77 reviews flagged | 99% negative | 0% positive
75 reviews flagged | 100% negative | 0% positive
134 review flagged | 100% negative | 0% positive
77 reviews flagged | 100% negative | 0% positive
132 reviews flagged | 100% negative | 0% positive
When a review is flagged, it is then appraised by a member of the compliance team at Trustpilot. If the review is found to be in breach of their guidelines, it is removed from the Trustpilot website. Approximately, 60% of all flagged reviews are removed from the Trustpilot platform.
Selectively flagging only negative reviews is, therefore, a highly effective method of increasing the average rating of the business.Businesses are unfairly flagging negative reviews to manipulate their Trustpilot rating. Click To Tweet
Some businesses are so keen to flag negative reviews they make little or no effort to determine whether the review is even in breach of Trustpilot’s guidelines. They flag every negative review and leave it up to Trustpilot to determine whether the review is, in fact, in violation.
Compare the difference between Yell’s reviews on Trustpilot (4-star rating) where Yell has a paid account and on Reviews.io (1-star rating) where they do not. How could Yell’s customers legitimately have such different experiences depending on the platform on which the review was posted?
Most people are now aware that companies can buy fake online reviews to enhance their online profile. There have been several recent high-profile stories in the media highlighting this issue calling on Trustpilot to take action.
A quick Google search reveals a wide selection of businesses happy to supply verified reviews on Trustpilot and Google at a low cost. Many of these companies are based in East and South-East Asia.
Most of the businesses selling reviews make little effort to cover their tracks. They often post under a name uncommon in the UK, write short reviews comprised mostly of complimentary adjectives and are likely to have published only one review under the same user account. Fake reviews also tend to be posted in batches, with a disproportionate number of 5-star reviews posted on the same day.
Company selling fake Trustpilot reviews
One of the most egregious examples of fake Trustpilot reviews are those shown on the profile of online fashion company, ChicV UK Ltd.
The company is owned by Mr Yang Xingjian and operates under several different brands including:
.. to name but a few.
ChicV is based in the UK but imports low-quality clothing from China which they sell primarily to the US market. This company’s websites attract more than 100,000 visitors per month from Google.
More than 10,000 people claim to have been scammed by this company. Customers complain that orders will take several weeks to arrive, don’t match the images or descriptions shown on the website and are of substandard quality. They also claim to get no response from customer services and are unable to return goods or claim a refund.
This company was first brought to my attention by Diana Buck. Diana checked this company’s Trustpilot reviews before buying some items from their website and was reassured to see a large number of positive reviews with a four or five-star rating. It was on the basis of these reviews that she felt confident enough to order some clothing from the lilicloth.com website.
As soon as Diana realised that she was the victim of a scam, she went back to look at the company’s Trustpilot profile in a little more detail.
She soon realised that the positive reviews she had seen were obviously not genuine. Most of these reviews spoke about the company in a way that lacked any real detail or used language untypical of a genuine customer.
Most of the positive reviews had been written by people with no other reviews posted on Trustpilot. (A tell-tale sign of review manipulation.)
Several identical reviews had been posted multiple times using different names.
It was clear that rather than respond to negative reviews, this company is paying people to write positive reviews about their business to directly contradict the complaints being made by genuine customers.
Diana contacted Trustpilot on five separate occasions over a period of eight months but received nothing but an automated response and a vague promise that someone would look into the matter. A little online research shows that Diana was far from being the first person to complain about this company to Trustpilot.
Eight months later, in November 2020, Trustpilot finally took some action. A warning message currently appears on Lilicloth’s Trustpilot profile page with a statement claiming that the fake reviews have been removed.
While it is good to see Trustpilot making some effort to address this fraud, not all of Lilicloth’s fake reviews have been removed nor should it have taken eight months for Trustpilot to take action. Trustpilot has taken no action on most of the other websites being operated by this same company.
It will be interesting to see how long the warning message remains on Lilicloth’s profile. From my experience, these messages are removed by Trustpilot within a matter of 2-3 weeks.
It would be a relatively simple matter for Trustpilot to design an automated system to flag this company for further investigation. It would only need to identify companies with an unusually high occurrence of reviews posted by people with no other reviews on their platform.
By allowing these scammers to manipulate their platform so easily, Trustpilot should surely share some liability for all those who have lost money by relying on these reviews.
It is a further disgrace that the UK authorities still allow Mr Yang Xingjian and his associates to operate as a company director and continue to scam the public at such an extraordinary scale.
Some businesses also buy fake negative reviews for their competitors or encourage their own staff to leave fake reviews online.
Take a look at these reviews on Google left by a sales executive working for Yell from their Belfast office.
You will see he has left a total of 45 reviews including a 5-star review for his employer.
His reviews include a tattoo parlour in Belfast, an ear wax removal company in Yorkshire, an industrial lubricant supplier in Cheshire, a chimney sweep in Lancashire, a decorator in Dundee and four different removals companies all at opposite ends of the country. An unlikely pattern of reviews for any genuine customer.
Location of reviews left by Yell employee based in Belfast
You will also notice that the typical comment posted with these ratings is, “great business” or “great business to deal with”. Comments that are sufficiently ambiguous as to disguise the true nature of the relationship. 95% of the reviewed businesses also happen to be advertisers with Yell.
It may come as no surprise to learn that Yell offer a service known as ‘Reputation Manager’ which offers to improve the online profiles of their small business clients. Yell staff are incentivised to gain positive reviews for their clients.
I have evidence of at least 15 other Yell employees engaging in similar activities. Yell cannot reasonably claim that these are just the activities of a few rogue employees. After exposing Yell’s activities, of of its employees left a negative review for my own business, despite never having been a client or even communicating with me. Google has refused to remove this review.
Trustpilot charge businesses a substantial amount of money to make full use of their platform. A significant proportion of that fee should be used to ensure that their platform is being used fairly and the reviews can be trusted.
Trustpilot must make significant improvements to their fraud detection algorithms and take strict action against repeated offenders. They should not be relying on consumers to do the job of their compliance team.
The day after this article was published, the following message suddenly appeared on Yell’s Trustpilot review page:
Trustpilot warns consumers that Yell’s rating can’t be trusted.
It is clear that this rushed message, littered with grammatical errors, is an attempt to limit the damage from this story spreading beyond my humble blog.
This warning message was removed from Yell’s Trustpilot profile just a few weeks after it first appeared. None of the manipulated reviews were removed from Yell’s profile and their Trustpilot rating was unaffected.
Yell continues to manipulate their reviews by inviting customers who have not yet experienced their terrible service and rejecting reviews from those who have.
Please watch this (4 min) video for which I was recently interviewed by BBC Watchdog about Trustpilot for an episode broadcast on Thursday 17th October 2019.
The public’s perception is that a Trustpilot rating is calculated as an average of all reviews left for a business.
In fact, a Trustpilot rating is heavily weighted by both the recency and quantity of reviews. Businesses using Trustpilot’s paid services to send automated review invitations are significantly more likely to have a larger quantity of recent reviews and, therefore, a more positive Trustscore than a company using their free service.
The Daily Mail – Can I trust Trustpilot’s reviews for firms that do and don’t pay it?