The Real Cost of Fake Reviews in App Stores

By Ed Hill, Senior Vice President EMEA at Bazaarvoice

In a recent investigation into the reviews of the app stores of Google and Apple, consumer group ‘Which?’ found that both were flooded with fake reviews. Instead of viewing user generated content (UGC) from real app users, prospective downloaders were greeted with fabricated reviews from online review brokers – often bought by the developers for as little as £1.70 a go – to make the apps seem more reputable and increase downloads.

The practice of purchasing fake reviews is unfortunately nothing new in the world of UGC. Morally questionable businesses know that humans often rely on the experiences of others to make decisions, and as such, create a narrative to drive sales. The research shows that developers are clearly no exception.

While the issues that fake UGC create for consumers are obvious – ranging from hiding flaws from them to downright lying to tempt them – you would be forgiven for thinking it is not so much of an issue for developers. It is just a few white lies to drive extra sales, right? Well, not quite…

The risks of fake reviews are high

While there are obvious upsides to faking app store reviews for developers, it is important to remember that the risks are high. In a recent research report, Bazaarvoice found that 54% of consumers will intentionally not buy (or in this case download) a product if they suspect it has fake reviews. And again, in this instance, developers are no exception.

For developers that know a product is faulty or has malicious intent, fake reviews may sound like a risk worth taking – driving purchases and downloads from unwitting customers with no interest in longevity. Clearly, fake online reviews are more of a problem than consumers might think, as even the Competition Market Authority (CMA) has recently stepped in to investigate review practices and protect against the damage of fake or misleading reviews.

For legitimate, well-intending developers, it is fair to say that the majority understand the practice of fake reviews is short-sighted. Yes, sales might briefly rise, but most understand that consumers are becoming wiser by the day to fake reviews and users are now on the lookout for them. Customers are growing suspicious of products that have multiple reviews with the same wording or an unexpected number of five-star ones.

But it isn’t just fake reviews

When it comes to UGC, it isn’t just about whether reviews are fake or not. No, it is just as much about ensuring that reviews are authentic as it is stopping fake reviews. In our research, we found that 71% of consumers feel that negative reviews are just as important as positive ones when it comes to their purchasing decisions. Consumers want to see the good and the bad so that they can make informed decisions without manipulation.

As such, retailers (and developers!) should lean into negative reviews. Show that they are listening and acting on issues that are faced by customers. Not only will this let prospective new customers better understand the product, but it will also go some way to create trust with the existing user base who want to feel heard.

Holding app stores accountable

We use our mobile devices to conduct some of our most sensitive business – from banking to messaging – and the apps that we install on our phones play a huge part in our overall safety. If users are installing apps that they believe mean well but are in fact willing to lie to get them to download them, then questions must be asked about a developer’s moral standards. Especially considering the ‘Which?’ investigation showing that apps in the health and fitness section were some of the worst affected; with up to a quarter of reviews in Google’s Play Store classified as suspicious, and nearly a fifth in Apple’s App Store.

Under the assumption that non-ethical developers will continue to use fake UGC to try to drive downloads if they are able, the question then turns to… what more could Google and Apple be doing to stop them? There is a clear need for their respective app stores to lean into fraud detection technology and adopt robust practices now, or risk putting the price onto consumers.

Both Google and Apple will only be able to satisfy their obligations to their customers by adopting a zero-tolerance stance on fake reviews. As users, it is up to us to demand more – both in terms of action and results – from them and make our voices heard. Acting to prevent the unsuspecting from falling fowl of fake reviews in a far more serious way than just filling up their phone’s memory.