More and more people each year are turning to the web to do their shopping. According to Statista, more than 2 billion people are expected to buy goods and services online this year, up from 1.7 billion just five years ago. But with all that digital retail, how are consumers deciding what to buy?

One resource is the large amount of reviews other shoppers leave for potential buyers. And they can have a lot of persuasion power. The Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University found that “online reviews have a significant and quantifiable impact on purchase decisions.”

A consumer's guide to separating real online reviews from phony ones

The center’s research shows there’s a 270% greater chance that someone will purchase a product if it has five reviews. And those reviews have the greatest impact if they rate a product in the 4.0-4.7 range. But too many reviews and too many perfect 5.0 ratings can actually make purchase probability drop. 

But fake reviews can be an issue. Research reported in the Harvard Business Journal found that some platforms have created algorithms to limit fake reviews. “In 2019 alone, Amazon spent more than $500 million and employed more than 8,000 people to reduce fraud and abuse on its platform,” according to researchers. They found Amazon was deleting around 40% of the fake reviews, but it took an average of more than 100 days to remove them. 

The researchers also found a prevalent way sellers produced fake reviews was to compensate people who would write them, either with free product or cash. The sellers often recruited those people through Facebook.

“Based on our observations, we estimate that as many as 4.5 million sellers sourced fake reviews via these Facebook groups in the past year,” the researchers wrote.

A bunch of fake, glowing reviews can be a problem for consumers who may buy a product based on those reviews, only to be disappointed when they try out the item for themselves.

The Federal Trade Commission has taken steps to stop companies from paying for fake reviews. In 2019, it made a complaint against a dietary supplements business, alleging it paid a now defunct website to post fake positive reviews with five-star ratings. A proposed court order settling the case for $12.8 million bans the company “from making misrepresentations regarding endorsements, including that an endorsement is truthful or by an actual user.” 

How do I spot a fake review?

PCMag survey found that while 78% of U.S. shoppers admit reviews on Amazon play a big role in their purchase decisions, only 33% said they felt even somewhat confident in spotting fake ones.

So here’s a little help.

  • PCMag suggests shoppers be suspicious of overly positive or negative reviews without a lot of detail as to why a product is getting a certain rating. Be wary of “very brief five-star and one-star reviews, particularly if they’re all posted on the same day,” according to PCMag. 
  • Look for “Amazon Verified Purchase” reviews. The website marks reviews with this title if it has “verified that the person writing the review purchased the product from Amazon, and didn’t receive the product at a big discount.”
  • Click on the profile of the reviewer in question. “If their profile pages are empty, or were created the same day they wrote the review, that’s another red flag,” according to Money

Shoppers can also use a third-party websites and browser extensions to check for legitimate reviews on some online marketplaces. Simply copy and paste the URL of the product you’re considering into one of these free options.

The questions to ask yourself before posting an online review

Fakespot uses algorithms to analyze product reviews for Amazon, BestBuy, Sephora, Steam, TripAdvisor, Yelp and Walmart to let consumers know whether those reviews are reliable. Fakespot will also give users highlights which include quick information about a product’s price, shipping and quality.

ReviewMeta analyzes only Amazon product reviews and filters out any that may be less than genuine. It will then give you an adjusted rating based on the reviews that it deems legitimate. 

The CEO of Fakespot, Saoud Khalifah, told CNN that phone accessories, electronics and smaller appliances are primarily the products with fake reviews attached. So next time you’re in the market for a new car charger, use common sense, read the reviews and run them through one of the review checking websites for good measure.

Then congratulate yourself that you’ll never receive a five-star rated product in the mail only to discover it’s actually junk and so were the reviews.