Customers Lying Online: An Interesting New Study

August 8, 2013

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 Doll

Perhaps 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).

13 thoughts on “Customers Lying Online: An Interesting New Study”

  1. This is really interesting. It’s odd to think there are people who just lie like this to entertain themselves? I think any online comments section is full of people like these. It makes me wonder how the community might self-regulate a bit. Maybe instead of just thumbs up/thumbs down, we could have a “Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire” option, too. 😉

    1. Funny Jeannie! I remember seeing something like that back during the last Presidential election. One of the outlets that rated the truth of political ads had the “Liar, Liar Pants on Fire” designation.

      As for self-regulation, one thing Amazon does now is has “Verified Purchaser” designation, so at least you can see if they did actually purchase the product through Amazon and take that into account when reading the review.

  2. Interesting, but not surprised. I’ve definitely seen this on Amazon book reviews for years, both personally and with plenty of author-friends. I’ve been a member of a very large writers’ group off and on for the last decade, and I’ve seen writers slap back at other writers by giving 1-star reviews, usually as a result of organizational politics. My most outstanding negative review was from an author who disliked my religion and refused to read my books. In the review, she posted personal information about my children’s after-school location and schedule–which Amazon took down without having to be begged.

    1. Thanks for sharing Lorna. And wow, that’s taking false reviews to an entirely different playing field. I’m glad Amazon did the right thing.

      It’s really a shame how some will used negative reviews to grind a personal axe.

  3. The little liars 😉

    Every time I read Yelp I wonder how in the world they police this stuff. When I read very detailed reviews on Amazon I often think the author is more interested in recognition than an actual review. Have you read some of those novellas? 😉

    If you research a car it seems that 90% of the forum content is negative. People love to complain … now I’m wondering how many of them were just fibbing.

    1. Well, if we go by this study, some of the people rating the cars drive their bike to work. 🙂

      I always wondered if there was some sort of financial incentive for the top reviewers at Amazon, because you’re right, they write some incredibly long and detailed reviews. I don’t have time to read them; I have no idea how they have time to write them!

  4. This frankly surprises me. I can see people leaving negative reviews because they actually used the product/service and were dissatisfied, and I can definitely see people leaving negative reviews because they’re either the competition or working for the competition, but for any other reason than those? How bizarre!

    This just blows my mind. Seriously. I am definitely wearing rose-colored glasses, I guess.

    1. Slightly rose colored I think. 🙂

      I was pretty surprised by the study too Michelle. I mean, what has to be going through someone’s mind to log into a website and consciously make up a review for a product they’ve never used. One or two wacky people, sure, but 5%!

  5. This article is just ok. I read it several times and can confirm that it has features like words ‘n other things and the author talks about theories and presents a viewpoint, but overall I found the article to be unsatisfactory.


  6. This is very interesting Adam. I haven’t thought much about it, because I rely on online reviews when I buy. For instance, when I buy books on Amazon, I always look at the reviews first. The same goes for many other products and services online. I’m not sure if there’s a way for most companies to check if the person who gave the review actually bought the product or not. But, it should be.

    On the other hand. I am working with a car dealership, and some of the people giving the reviews are not customers, but people who’ve been communicating with them. This way, they have an experience with the company without buying. But it’s different with reviews of specific products and services.

    1. Amazon does the “Verified Purchaser” tag on reviewers. I’m not sure if anyone else does, but I imagine it’s pretty technically complicated (and hence, expensive) so it might be out of reach for a lot of companies. I just checked Zappos, and they don’t seem to have it.

      That’s a great point about the car dealership — where customers can have an experience with the company worth reviewing without even making a purchase.

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