An unnamed catering equipment distributor has cropped up in a major investigation by consumer champion Which? into the issue of fake Google reviews.
The organisation said it had uncovered a web of paid-for ‘reviewers’ manipulating the star ratings of nearly 50 Google business listings after a probe lasting 2 months.
In January 2021 it went undercover and signed up to firms offering “review manipulation services” – including the posting of fake five-star reviews – to business listings on Google.
Which? said that competition to appear prominently in Google search results is fierce, and this has created a thriving industry offering businesses a shortcut to the top.
It was able to buy 20 Google reviews for £108 from Reviewr, a company selling them in bulk, and found that many of the accounts used to plant its fake reviews had reviewed the same selection of businesses, all around the country.
It linked together nearly 50 businesses that had at least three reviewers in common, including a “next-day catering equipment company” in Scotland and a raft of other businesses from a variety of sectors.
Which? stated: “Our investigation has revealed concerning gaps in Google’s monitoring of its review platform, potentially leaving people at risk of being misled into using local businesses that aren’t up to scratch, or that they wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. More worryingly, we found evidence of substantial financial risk with one of the businesses we uncovered.”
Google told Which! that the issue of paid-for fake reviews was a “complex and persistent threat”.
A spokesperson said: “We invest significantly in building technologies and instituting practices that help people find reliable information on Google. Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology. When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.”
Last year the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into the problem of fake reviews.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “Most of us read online reviews to help decide which products or services to buy. During lockdown, we’re more dependent than ever on online shopping, so it’s really important that the online reviews we read are genuine opinions.
“If someone is persuaded to buy something after reading a fake or misleading review, they could end up wasting their money on a product or service that wasn’t what they wanted. Our investigation will examine whether several major websites are doing enough to crack down on fake reviews. And we will not hesitate to take further action if we find evidence that they aren’t doing what’s required under the law.”