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Fake review websites

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A new and emerging problem online is the use of fake review sites.  A fake review site is a website/blog or other online resource which is set up for the purpose of reviewing goods and services for consumers.  Unbeknownst to the consumer, many of these sites are set up by product vendors or their online affiliates for the purpose of generating sales of their goods and services and/or commissions for online affiliates.  While these sites do not necessarily strictly engage in intellectual property infringement, they often engage in misleading and deceptive conduct and create commercial issues for businesses whose competitors use them.  Several websites have been established to track fake review sites (see for example – http://www.scamreviewsites.com).

We have seen a proliferation of these sites, particularly in the online software market.  The sites tend to work as follows:

  • The site owner creates an information page on a particular product (usually a software product). The webpage contains general information and then discusses a number of different products out in the market place.
  • The site will contain a review of each product, possibly giving it a score out of ten or some other rating.
  • The site may claim that the review is independent or that rigorous independent testing has been conducted.
  • The outcome of the review will be that a particular product will be classified as the leading product. The visitor to the website may click on the product logo/name on the review site and will be taken to the product’s own website where the product may be purchased. If a purchase occurs, the product vendor will pay a commission to the fake review site. This commission is rarely if ever disclosed to the consumer.
  • The review site then combines the fake review with Google advertising to drive traffic to the review site. For example a search on the key word “anti virus” may turn up Google ads such as “Anti-virus software review”, “Which anti-virus software” with links to corresponding review sites, which may or may not be bona fide.

In these scenarios the consumer believes they have visited an independent review site.  Instead they have been misled as to the quality or character of the products being reviewed with the principal aim being to drive the consumer to purchase the winning product, resulting in a commission payable to the website owner.

Essentially these review sites cost businesses money in a number of ways.  These include:

  • The site may disparage the businesses’ products (through a poor review) thereby damaging its reputation.
  • The site will drive sales to a competitor product, thereby costing the business sales.
  • The site, if successful, may increase search engine advertising costs for the business.

Dealing with these review sites at a legal level can be tricky and a unique strategy should be put in place for each review site.  Some of the legal strategies we have advised clients to use include:

  • Sending a cease and desist letter. In our experience these letters can have effect. However those review sites which are making significant returns (and many are) may only bow to legal action.
  • Encourage a businesses’ sales staff to engage in discourse with the review site to see if their product rating may be boosted.
  • In some cases, businesses have simply approached the review site with the theory that “if you can’t beat them join them” to offer the review site higher commissions on their products in return for a more favourable review.
  • Depending on whether the review site is US based, there may be some advantage in writing to the relevant state Attorney General or consumer protection organisation. Some Attorney General’s such as the New York Attorney General are very active in enforcing consumer rights online so may take action.

If you have any questions regarding this article, or any other technology related questions, our Technology & Media lawyers are happy to assist you.

Author: Darren Sommers