Yelp, Google and UrbanSpoon targets for fake reviews

Marketplace investigation uncovers thriving industry behind fake online reviews

That online review may recommend a restaurant in glowing prose, but should you eat up every word? Maybe not.

A months-long investigation by CBC’s Marketplace shows how easy it is for companies to deceive consumers online. It uncovered an entire industry designed to help businesses mislead consumers, bolstering companies’ online reputations with fake reviews and testimonials.

A good online reputation can have a huge impact on a company’s revenue. When researchers at the Harvard Business School analyzed restaurant reviews and revenue in Seattle, they found that a one-star increase on the popular review site Yelp meant a five to nine per cent increase in revenue for independent restaurants.

“Some data now show that a good majority of people in North America believe and trust online reviews more than they trust their friends’ opinions,” Jeff Hancock, a professor who researches online deception at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.

And as the public’s reliance on review sites has increased, so has the market for bolstering businesses online reputations.

Jeff Hancock

“I think it’s going to become increasingly a big problem as more and more these high-end services – lawyers, dentist, doctors – come online with the reviews,” says Jeff Hancock, a professor and researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. (CBC)

“I think it’s really amazing how easy it is to purchase deception now on the internet,” Hancock says.