BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - What's the first thing you do before hitting the "buy" button when you shop online? If you're like millions of Americans, you check out all of the user reviews below the product.
But new research suggests a lot of what you're reading may not be the real, unvarnished truth.
"I imagine it's a problem on pretty much any platform," says Tommy Noonan. He runs ReviewMeta, a site that sorts through tens of thousands of product reviews to see which ones are real and which are fake, or as he says - biased.
"There's a lot of reviewers that are more biased than they are fake," Noonan explains. "One of the problems happening right now is the free product-in-exchange-for-reviews. This loophole was closed a year and a half ago by Amazon, and it kind of pushed this industry underground."
Products with glowing reviews get pushed to the top of the search results on Amazon, and especially reviews by customers who have purchased the product. And that's where a relatively new scheme starts.
"Now you're having these private Facebook groups where sellers offer their product and the reviewers actually purchase them on Amazon, so they get the verified purchaser tag, then they get a Paypal refund after the seller gets the review," Noonan explains.
"Is it a fake review? Technically no, because this person did buy the product," Noonan says. "But is it biased, does it belong on the platform, is it misleading? Absolutely. And those are the reviews I look to filter out."
The ReviewMeta algorithm searches out suspicious reviews that are either poorly written or from profiles with only one post - telltale signs of a potentially fake review.
The Federal Trade Commission says if you post a review in exchange for getting the product for free, you have to disclose that. But Noonan says these private Facebook groups where vendors pay for reviews specifically tell reviewers not to tell you they're paid.
"They're not following those guidelines here, so not only do I believe it's unethical, in my opinion, it's also illegal," Noonan says.
Noonan says he sees a high concentration of these fake reviews in supplements, diet pills, testosterone boosters, hair growing products, teeth whitening, and cheap electronics like backup batteries or iPhone cords.
What's even more confusing about this new trend is that Noonan says in most cases - even when he filters out the fake reviews and re-ranks the products based on real reviewers experiences - the product usually still comes out with about the same score.
So how can you spot a fake review? You can put the product through ReviewMeta's search engine or, "Stay critical, read the critical reviews actually read the text of the reviews to see what the complaints are," Noonan says.