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Can you really trust online reviews? Here's how to spot the fake ones

Sunday Riley was recently accused of making employees write fake reviews of its beauty products. Now what?
Amazon, online reviews, Sunday Riley, Black Friday
The holiday season is here and that means holiday shopping. Here's what to look for when reading online reviews.Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

It's the norm these days to scan reviews to make sure a product is worth it when shopping online — but what if some of those reviews are bogus?

In the age of "verified purchases" and shoppers who get discounts on everything from clothes to electronics to pet food in exchange for writing reviews, it can be hard to tell what — or who — is trustworthy.

And then there's always the chance that some of those reviews are just ... totally fake. Last month, the millennial-favorite beauty brand Sunday Riley found itself in hot water when it was accused of asking employees to use fake names and write reviews about its products in order to boost ratings.

So how do companies make sure the reviews we're reading are legitimate? Most work with a third party that manages all those reviews and weeds out the bad ones. There are some obvious red flags — think curse words or long strings of numbers, like social security numbers — and less obvious ones, like repetitive phrasing, which could mean someone is copying and pasting multiple reviews to boost (or burn) a product's ratings.

"We use a combination of automated technology to detect fraud and spam and inappropriate language, and then we augment that by having every single review read by a human moderator," said PowerReviews CEO Matt Moog, whose company works with more than 1,000 different brands and retailers.

Fortunately, he says cases like Sunday Riley's are "extremely unusual."

"With well-known, reputable brands and retailers, their reputation is on the line when it comes to this kind of stuff," he said. "There is an extreme amount of attention paid to spam, fraud, profanity. As somebody who knows intimately what kind of measures are put into place, I feel very strongly that reviews are the best form of authentic insight into what consumers actually think. Does that mean they're 100 percent accurate and authentic? No."

Sometimes a bad review just slips through. So how can you make sure the ones you're reading are legitimate? Moog suggests to look for ones labeled as "verified purchases" or coming from "verified buyers," which means the person who wrote the review actually purchased the product. Look for products that have many reviews, but keep an eye out for reviews that use very similar language. "That's a giant red flag that they've been planted there," he said.

In a statement, Sephora said that it's working with Sunday Riley to make sure the brand adheres to its review policy, and that it is dedicated to "protecting the integrity of our Ratings and Reviews." Sephora also uses a third-party company to manage reviews.

Ulta, another beauty giant and a client of Moog's, is one of those companies that points out reviews that come from verified buyers (basically, the account associated with the review is also associated with the purchase of the product), which gives customers some extra reassurance. In a statement, Ulta said that it does not censor or remove reviews that offer honest opinions from customers.

Yet other companies, such as Amazon, handle the review process in-house. The company told TODAY Style in a statement that it makes significant investments in both machine learning and automated systems.

"Machine learning allows us to scale quickly and respond to abuse faster," a spokesperson said. "When we identify companies who have abused the reviews system, we suspend or ban them from Amazon."

Of course, it's in the best interest of retailers and companies, like PowerReviews, to say that reviews are legitimate, but that doesn't take away from the fact that reviews are more important today than ever before. According to Moog, research shows that 97 percent of people won't make an online purchase without reading a review first.

People are even looking up reviews on their smartphones while they're in brick-and-mortar stores.

Amazon recently opened a few stories across the country called Amazon 4-star, which sell only — you guessed it — Amazon products that have ratings of four stars or higher.

This holiday season, there's a good chance you'll be doing some shopping online. Now when you're looking at reviews, you'll know what to look for.

Here's a recap:

  • Watch our for repetitive language, which could suggest the same person is posting multiple reviews to alter a product's rating.
  • Look for verified purchases or verified buyers for more reliable feedback.
  • Look for products with many reviews.
  • When in doubt, enlist help from technology. Websites like Fakespot give shoppers a sense of how trustworthy the reviews are for a given product. (The site analyzes writing style, frequency, dates of reviews and more.)

Happy shopping!

P.S. Not sure where to start? TODAY just launched our holiday gift guides, so take a look!