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The Haggler: All the Product Reviews Money Can Buy


Credit Christoph Hitz

The holiday online shopping season has begun, and that means reading lots of online product reviews. Some of these reviews are helpful, others are not. And many are fakes — raves or pans from people who have never actually used the product. Where do fake reviews come from? In this column, a close-up look at one notable source.

Q. Starting in early November, and over the course of a week, the Facebook business page for the company where I work, Long’s Jewelers, was hit with 200 one-star reviews. Many of the reviews arrived in a matter of minutes, and all were left without comment. They were bogus reviews that were composed by a freelance spammer, who we believe was paid by one of our competitors.

Our average customer rating on our Facebook page fell from 4.8 stars to 2.3 stars.

We contacted Facebook, which at first refused to help. I wrote a post on a marketing website, asking for the community’s aid, and then released a statement asking for the public’s assistance. My pleas went viral enough to compel Facebook to re-examine the issue, and it has since taken down nearly all of the purchased reviews.

Through a bit of sleuthing, I found that the reviews came through a website called Fiverr, where people offer to perform odd jobs for $ 5 and up. Leaving negative reviews is apparently one of those jobs. Fiverr banished the person who wrote these particular sham reviews, but hundreds of other people are still on the site, offering a similar service.

That seems obnoxious and bad for consumers. Why does Fiverr tolerate it?

Lynelle SchmidtBurlington, Mass.

A. Fair warning: The Haggler tried to answer this question and wound up more baffled than when he began.

Fiverr, which started in 2010, is based in Israel and hosts thousands of people performing tasks in hundreds of categories. The sellers use pseudonyms, for some reason, and most gigs, as they are called, are perfectly legitimate, even delightful. “I will create a 16-line song about anything,” reads a gig by Tylerbarks. “I will write message in beach sand at sunrise,” reads another by Batykefer1.

But the Haggler rummaged around Fiverr and quickly found dozens of people offering to post positive reviews to Facebook, different Google sites, the Apple App Store, iTunes and elsewhere. None said anything about trumped-up negative reviews, but fabricated raves are nearly as bad — or perhaps just as misleading, though perhaps not quite as malicious.

The Haggler wrote to Fiverr asking about these gigs, which violate the company’s terms of service, which prohibit the sale of fraudulent reviews.

Then the silliness began. A publicist for the site, Anne Baker, sent an email that stated, in part, that the company removed these fake review gigs “as they are reported.”

O.K. So consider this a report, quoth the Haggler, in an email back.

Would that it were so easy! Ms. Baker explained that the process for reporting fraudulent gigs involved an email to customer service, which studies such reports. She provided a link to Fiverr’s customer service page.

“Are you saying the Haggler needs to fill out a form, pointing out what he just pointed out, in order to remove from Fiverr people offering to post fake reviews?” the Haggler wrote.

“Yep, that is the process,” Ms. Baker wrote.

Let’s take a moment to say hello to Micha Kaufman, C.E.O. and co-founder of Fiverr. Hello, Mr. Kaufman! This is in keeping with the Haggler’s policy of naming the leaders of companies, particularly when they hire pros who carry out daft public relations strategies.

The Haggler dutifully filled out the form, inviting Fiverr to make the Internet just a little more honest by removing those fake review gigs.

“We appreciate your concern,” Ryan, in customer support, replied the next day, “and would love to look into any specific gigs that you feel are in violation of our terms of service and remove them if such violation is identified.”

The Haggler was getting the impression that Fiverr was not exactly hellbent on rooting out this problem. But fine, here are two specific examples, the Haggler wrote back, with links to two people offering fake huzzahs.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” replied Anna in customer support, who soon veered into ungrammatical terrain by adding, “as our time is already reviewing this gigs daily. Due to our privacy policy, we are unable to share any further details of the review or actions we will take against the reported individual. We thank you for understanding.”

But the Haggler does not understand. He did, however, soon learn a bit of context. It turns out that in October, Amazon sued more than 1,100 Fiverr sellers who were offering to sell fake reviews. The case was filed in a Washington State court, against people like bess98, who promised an “awesome review of your Amazon product.” How will bess98 know what to say about your awesome product? You will tell her. As Amazon’s lawyers’ noted in their complaint, bess98 states on her listing: “You have to provide me with the review text.”

It’s worth noting that Amazon did not name Fiverr as a defendant, which suggests the company is cooperating. (Neither Fiverr nor Amazon would comment on the lawsuit.) And that could mean that the more than 1,100 people identified in legal documents as John Does may have their actual identities handed over to Amazon.

You won’t currently find a lot of people on Fiverr offering fake Amazon reviews, suggesting that a lawsuit against Fiverr sellers is pretty effective. But as the Haggler already noted, there are still lots of gigs on Fiverr offering to spam Apple, Facebook and Google sites with paid-for reviews.

Fiverr doesn’t just host these gigs; it also makes money from their labors. (It gets about 20 percent of each transaction.) It could be that fake reviews are a huge moneymaker and Fiverr would rather count its dollars and wait for another lawsuit, betting that it will again emerge unscathed from the crossfire.

If so, it is making a pretty cold financial calculation: that it can hand over the names of people it now profits from the day after they become a liability.


NYT > Technology

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