So much credence has been given to the value of 'likes' and positive reviews on social media it was only a matter of time for it, too, to be abused. It's easy to find companies that are only to happy to provide thousands of people, usually in developing economies, that will give you many thousands of 'likes' for a very low cost.
The same pattern emerged in the infancy of online advertising, banner ads and clicks linked to searches. The success of these was based initially on the number if 'hits' they achieved - whether or not the 'hitter' bought anything or not.
In due course, advertisers began to question the value of paying per click and were offered plans based on revenues generated from hits. Companies like Google and Amazon track the customer activity from 'search to purchase' and merchants appear to be happier to pay a premium for attracting real purchasing customers.
In social networks, the need to amass large numbers of 'friends' and acceptance by peers has become a status symbol. Facebook realized this early and instigated the 'like' button to make it easy for people to recognize others and, hopefully, be liked in return. Popularity of people, photos, videos, anything is now gauged on how many likes they can garner.
On other networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ the number of followers, re-tweets and connections determines how much influence an individual has.
Not everybody follows the same basic rules of engagement and acceptance and go all out to attract as many contacts as possible, whether known or not. Pop stars and actors shoot to the top of the popularity stakes but their 'knowledge sharing' rarely has any relation to the ranking as influencers.
The more recent proliferation of 'review' sites allowing anyone to make a comment, positive or negative, on anything from hotel rooms to movies have replaced the views of professional experts that had previously built their own reputations on publishing their own trusted reviews in newspapers and magazines.
Today, everybody is a critic, and the ease with which they can air their views is both a good thing and a potential disaster for people and businesses on the receiving end. Abuse of these open channels by competitors, disgruntled customers and disruptive elements has now become a serious issue not easily managed or controlled by existing national or international regulations.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the competition watchdog, has turned the spotlight onto fake online reviews, releasing a new set of guidelines and reminding companies it can fine them up to $1.1 million for breaches. It believes the guidelines will address misleading conduct and better help consumers decide the truth about the businesses they research online.
That's a start, albeit well after the horse has bolted, but how can anyone determine if a review or comment is real or fake, let alone checking millions of them. Apparently, there's an app for that, too.
Many customer focussed businesses have already set up social media monitoring software to track, intercept and resolve customer gripes published online but determining whether the customer actually exists and if the comment is computer generated or not could save them millions in lost revenues and help close own illegal activity as well.
It should be no surprise that researchers at Cornell University have developed software to spot fakes. They say the software can spot fake reviews 90% of the time, compared to 50% for the average person. They have now created a website, reviewskeptic.com, to allow others to drop in reviews and have the software judge whether they are true or false.
Another organization looking at helping detect fake online reviews is Feedback Loop, run by an Australian entrepreneur and former ACCC intelligence analyst. Sam Johnson was so determined to stop fake reviews he started the anti-spam review business in January this year.
No doubt more solutions like this will emerge, but determining the fakes and exposing them may not be enough. Only when international agreement on ‘disincentivizing’ the fakes comes into play with severe penalties will we see a return to sanity. In the meantime, online reviews may have to be treated with a grain of salt.