In February, the owner of a home improvement company in Texas posted an advertisement online for “a writer who can write and post 25 positive reviews” on eight popular websites, including Yelp, Google Places, and Citysearch. A man in Chittagong, Bangladesh, won the gig and agreed to do 200 fake write-ups for $100. Within days, rave reviews for the company started popping up online. The business owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he doesn’t feel bad about the deception. He says clients call all the time extolling his service, but they don’t post reviews.
The proliferation of fake reviews is a huge problem for e-commerce and recommendation sites that depend on user ratings. “At the end of the day, if consumers don’t trust the content, then there is no value for anyone,” says Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for the local review site Yelp. It’s not just consumers who become suspicious. British regulators are investigating the complaint by a company representing hoteliers that there are millions of phony reviews on the travel site TripAdvisor, which says it’s cooperating. For some products, up to 30 percent of reviews can be fake, says Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.