Customers Lying Online | Pinocchio Doll

Customers Lying Online: An Interesting New Study

MIT recently released a new study showing that customers sometimes review products with companies that they’re loyal to even when they have not personally used the product. To quote the article (emphasis mine):

“Even a company’s loyal customers are inclined to write negative reviews about its products, regardless of whether the customers actually have purchased the products.”

Customers Lying Online | Pinocchio DollPerhaps the world’s worst-kept secret is that customers lie online. Some are shills working for the company in question, some are shills working for competitors, and others are just disconnected from the facts. In fact, we discussed some of the ways Amazon could improve its rating system in a previous post.

In recent years FTC regulations have put teeth to the practice of deceptive online ratings, which seems, to my unscientific observation, to have curtailed the problem a bit.

Nonetheless, online ratings can be a difficult needle to thread.

What the MIT study shows is that some customers lie with no discernible objective.The facts covered in the article are pretty startling:

“Simester and Anderson found that 5 percent of the product reviews were written by people for whom there was no record of having purchased the product. And these reviews were more negative than the other 95 percent of the reviews, which were posted by people who had purchased the products.”*

The study goes on to hypothesize why customers might do this. The authors suggest that customers who post bogus reviews for products they have not purchased are either acting as “self-appointed brand managers” or simply trying to bolster their own online status.

What does this study means for customer facing professionals?  I think we can take two actionable ideas away from it:

  1. Never use online ratings as the only source of customer satisfaction/service data. Online ratings are simply too inexact, too subject to other influences, to be the sole source of analyzing your product and/or service.
  2. Follow up with online reviewers as much as possible. Obviously, if you are Amazon or Zappos’ this is not possible. However, for small organizations, it can be feasible — and helpful. Due to online anonymity, you might not be able to connect with everyone, but some is better than none. Follow up online or off-line, but follow up if you think it will make a difference to your business.

It’s a Wild Wacky Web, and two researchers just showed us another gaping hole in the online ratings game.

“Let’s be careful out there.”


* Obviously, a number of other explanations exist for why someone might review a product when there is no record of them purchasing it. Did the reviewer receive it as a gift or buy it elsewhere? The authors address these variables in the original paper (pdf).


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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