We know that posting fake reviews is always a bad idea — particularly if you’re posting fake reviews in favor of your business. But what if your business is the victim of fake reviews posted by competitors and others who have a malicious intent against your business?
Negative reviews are bad enough, but if they’re not true, it’s especially frustrating. They have the potential to damage your reputation, even when you’ve done nothing to earn them. Fortunately, it is possible to fight fake reviews — and win.
We asked experts in public relations, customer service, and online reviews to tell us how they recommend dealing with fake reviews. They told us that it’s important to address fake reviews by attempting to remove them, responding with a level head, and building a great reputation that won’t be damaged by a few fake entries.
Identifying Fake Reviews
Fake reviews can pop up at any time to surprise you, so your best defense is to get ahead of them as soon as you possibly can. Letting them sit and do nothing won’t make them true, but with no action or response from you, they might as well be in the eyes of anyone reading your reviews. That’s why swift action is essential in fighting fake reviews.
The best way to stay on top of fake reviews is to monitor for them. Little Penguin Public Relations founder and CEO Michelle Stansbury recommends watching several online outlets for testimonials and reviews.
“Set up Google Alerts for your company name, watch your Yelp (and other relevant review sites) page, and monitor social media by searching for associated hash tags,” she says. “Malicious reviews will stay visible unless you do something to get them removed. But you can’t take steps to remove malicious reviews unless you know they are out there!”
Weekly checks are a good idea for smaller companies, but for larger organizations, daily checks or even continual monitoring may be necessary to identify fake reviews as soon as they happen.
Removing Fake Reviews
It’s shocking, receiving a bad review that your company did nothing to earn. You may feel incredulous and outraged. But calm your temper: you’ll need a level head to deal with this situation. While it’s not always possible to remove a fake review, many review sites place an emphasis on trustworthy information and are eager to filter and remove reviews that are clearly not truthful. But they need your help.
Jon Hall with Grade.us warns that extremely large website like Google and Yelp may not be able to entertain your request for removal. In fact, Yelp will not remove reviews unless they violate specific guidelines, like conflicts of interest or hate speech. But Hall encourages business owners to diligently report fake reviews anyway, just in case. It can’t hurt — and it may help them stay on top of rogue users.
MyCorporation.com CEO Deborah Sweeney agrees that even though Yelp and other large sites may side with the reviewer more often than not, it’s still a good idea to flag any review you think is fake. “If you have a verified business listing and an account linked to that listing, you can flag reviews if you believe they were created by a competitor or professional reviewer,” she says. “Check out the account that made the review – legitimate accounts normally leave a few reviews within one, main geographic area. If the account is brand new, or the reviews are for businesses scattered all over the place, you might have a case for flagging it.”
When flagging fake reviews, Submit Express CEO Pierre Zarokian recommends that you make sure to point out any inconsistent information that can help prove the review is clearly not related to your business.
David Engel with Review Concierge shares an example of how he successfully removed a number of fake reviews for a client:
“One of our doctors wrote an unpopular opinion piece in the local newspaper. He then received over 30 negative reviews within 2 days after the piece was published. Most of the people writing the reviews admitted their main gripe with the doctor was his opinion piece. Some pretended to be patients. He hired Review Concierge, and we proceeded to contest each review by stating that online reviews are a platform for customers to share their experience with a business–not a forum for political or social commentary. The websites agreed and all 30 reviews were removed within a month.”
“The lesson here is to take action when you notice that a review isn’t legitimate,” says Engel. “Send an email to the website owner stating why you don’t believe it was written by a real customer. You may not always get the review removed, but it’s worth a try.”
FUZE, Inc. founder and head of digital strategy shares another example of successful review removal in action:
“I worked for an agency in NYC who used Glassdoor.com for job postings. The company soon noticed that a lot of negative reviews were popping up from past employees. It was quite obvious that most of the reviews were left by a single person, in an attempted smear campaign. The CEO contacted Glassdoor and got in touch with their head of customer relations. Soon after, Glassdoor removed 90% of the reviews. The ones they did not take down seemed to be honest reviews that fell within the guidelines of GD’s terms of service.”
In addition to reporting fake reviews for removal, it’s also a good idea to establish a positive review presence on websites that have a solid removal policy. Any would-be attackers will certainly notice your presence and likely choose anywhere you’re well established as a target, but with strong policies to back you up, you’ll be protected against anyone who wants to file a fake negative review.
Capterra is one site where fake reviews are taken seriously. The team will research reviews and try to connect email addresses, names, and company names. If they can’t make everything add up, they’ll remove it. Even better: they take vendors at their word, and ultimately, if a business says they can’t confirm the reviewer as a customer, they’ll side with the business remove the review. Websites with policies like this offer added protection for businesses and assurance that you won’t be the victim of a smear campaign — at least, not on their property.
Responding to Fake Reviews
It’s always preferable to remove a fake review entirely, but if that’s just not possible, you can still defend your good reputation with a response. Real or fake, positive or negative, it’s always a good idea to respond to every review, so this should not be an entirely new thing for you to take on in your review management process. But when you’re dealing with fake malicious reviews, you’ll need to be especially careful in how you handle them.
“Business owners are understandably upset when someone maligns their company,” says Stansbury. “However, lashing out at critics does far more harm for your company image. If you do need to publicly respond to a negative review, do so in a constructive way.”
Hall advises that they best way to neutralize the effect of a fake review is to respond to it in a way that makes the situation clearer to any third-party. “While Seth Godin famously advised us to treat unhappy customers with “compassion and contrition”, a fitting response to a fake review might be “dispassion and dissection,”” says Hall. He recommends a response such as:
“We take these matters very seriously. However, we have no record or recollection of any customer experience fitting your story and description, nor can we verify anything about your identity from your Google+ account, which appears to have just been created for the purpose of disparaging our firm.”
Responding strategically and carefully is really the key here: Mike Ortner, CEO of Capterra advises that responses should come across as helpful and matter of fact — never snarky.
“Respond to the suspected fake review to make it clear that the reviewer cannot be confirmed as a user of the product,” advises Ortner. “Include an offer for the reviewer to contact the company for resolution of whatever problem he or she has.”
Jared Frasier with home services company Frasiers makes it a policy to respond to every review, good or bad. When the review is fake, Frasiers takes a fact based stance — rather than a “how dare you!?” approach.
“We deflect it back to them and how they are hurting local economies by these dishonest practices,” says Frasier. “This isn’t written for them, it’s written for prospective customers. We also make a note that we have contacted the BBB (which we do) to notify them that a local company is attempting to use false reviews. To date, we have never had a fake reviewer respond.”
Whatever you do, simply respond. If you can’t remove a fake review, you can at least tell your side of the story. Certified business analyst Sharon Geltner shares an example of when an explanation was needed to combat a malicious, unwarranted review:
“I have a client who owns a pet hospital and store. One reviewer posted that her staff refused to treat her dog, when what really happened was that the dog had not had certain shots it needed in the first place and was highly contagious. The owner refused to purchase the necessary treatment and left in a huff.”
In this situation, Geltner encourages businesses to confront the review without using names or identifiers, but stating clearly, in bullet points, what really happened and how the issue was resolved. “Very factual, no name calling, no editorializing, no false accusations,” she says. “Just a businesslike, just the facts, tone. That way, the owner avoids a “he said, she said,” mess.”
With consistent application of thoughtful, clear-headed rebuttals, Geltner says that the truth should win out. “If this happens enough times, it’s clear to even casual viewers and potential clients that someone has a grudge,” she says. “Better yet, the owner sends the message to potential false or malicious reviewers, that their remarks will quickly be rebutted.”
There is one exception to this rule, however. Zarokian warns not to immediately respond on Yelp. Instead, you should wait at least 10 days to respond. Why? Yelp uses an algorithm that filters reviews, so the fake review may get pushed down all on its own — but not if you respond to it.
“On Yelp, if you respond to a review, it may make it stick more,” explains Zarokian. “But if you do not respond, there is a chance it may get filtered after a few days, specially if the review is from someone with a new account and less than 10 reviews.”
Dealing with Competitor Reviews
Fake reviews from competitors are a special kind of sneaky. Fortunately, it’s almost always obvious what’s going on when a competitor leaves a fake review. Reviewers may have a connection to a competitor, or have certain details that only someone in the same industry would known — not a customer. How can you find out if you’re dealing with a malicious competitor?
“If it was done on a social network like Facebook or Google+, this is easy,” says Frasier. “Just look for their other reviews and any connection they may have to the competition. An example of this would be an extensive review left by a customer that we could not find in our database. I used Facebook Graph Search to discover that the “customer” was in fact the niece of a competitor.”
Brand builder Tony Darrick Baker says that competitor reviews tend of have tells that can be easily picked up on. “Is the customer in your point of sale software system? Do they name employees specifically in their complaints?,” he asks. These are signs that you’re dealing with a legitimate customer and should quickly contact them to satisfy their complaint.
But, says Baker, fake reviews left by competitors may include information real customers aren’t likely to share — like recommending competitors (actually themselves) in the review. Fortunately, Baker says that customers are likely to pick up on this if there are an overwhelming number of positive reviews to contrast the fake ones from competitors.
Fake reviews from competitors are a special case and should always be dealt with swiftly and carefully. You should, of course, first attempt to have the review removed by the website, presenting evidence that the review is not legitimate. It’s also smart to respond to the review and point out in a matter of fact way that you can’t verify this customer’s identity. But you’ll need to take a few extra steps when you’re dealing with a competitor.
If you have real evidence, be sure to contact the Better Business Bureau to let them know of your competitor’s shady actions. You may also want to get in contact with the local Chamber of Commerce, and even regulatory authorities if applicable to your industry. Contact the business owner directly to let them know you’re aware of their actions and will not sit idly by as they damage your reputation — but be careful not to start an argument. Simply point out that you’re aware of what’s happening and explain the action you’ve taken against it, and include a simple, polite request that they stop the practice immediately. If the problem persists, it may be a good idea to consult a lawyer to discuss legal action.
Winning the War on Fake Reviews
You can try to get them removed, respond to them, and even contact malicious reviewers directly, but ultimately, there may be some fake reviews that just won’t go away. Even with every possible defense against them, they may persist and damage your reputation, but you don’t have to let them ruin you. Experts say that ultimately, the best defense against fake reviews is to simply drown them out with real ones — and the truth always wins.
“We bury fake reviews in positive and genuine reviews from happy customers,” says Frasier. “Whatever service it was on, we make sure to get at least 10 positive reviews on that site in the first week after it happens.”
Baker agrees: “Your best defense is a great offense. Get out there and make sure your customers know that you appreciate great reviews when they have a wow-factor experience. Obviously it’s a numbers game. Stay consistent. Keep it up as a regular part of your business process, and not just a whim to combat a temporary setback. Eventually, competitors will not even want to make an effort to submit a couple of bad reviews when you already have dozens, and potentially hundreds of great reviews over the lifespan of your business.”
In addition to building a good base of positive reviews, Zarokian recommends developing a strong social presence online. “I would recommend that all business owners set up their businesses on top social media sites that may give them some protection and avoid negative reviews from ranking highly,” he says. Zarokian also recommends working with the press for quotes, columns, and other opportunities for positive publication.
Steps to Fighting Fake Reviews
How can you avoid letting fake reviews ruin your business? Take these steps to remove fake reviews and reduce their influence on your online reputation.
- Monitor for fake reviews: You can’t stop fake reviews if you don’t know they exist. Set up alerts, and regularly check in with review sites where you have a presence to make sure that you’re staying on top of every new review.
- Attempt removal first: The simplest way to fight fake reviews is to work with websites to get them taken down. This isn’t always possible, but many review websites have policies that will allow you to remove fake reviews, provided you have sufficient evidence to back up your claim. Removal should always be your first option, as it’s the most effective method for preserving your reputation.
- Respond to the review: If removal is not an option, don’t simply let the fake review sit there as if it’s true — defend your business. Avoid being argumentative or engaging with the reviewer in a negative way, as this will only reflect poorly on you. But do point out in a matter of fact way that you have no record of working with the reviewer and encourage them to contact you directly to resolve whatever troubling situation they have. Simply calling the review into question will make any fake review seem less trustworthy.
- Develop a strong reputation that can’t be shaken: You may get stuck with a fake review that you just can’t do much about, but if your reputation is otherwise sterling, you don’t have much to worry about. Businesses with a long history of positive reviews and a good online reputation will continue to stand out as trustworthy, and customers can typically see straight through fake reviews if 95% of your other ones are full of high praise.