BUSINESSES across Scotland and the UK are boosting their profiles by paying to artificially boost their ratings online with fake Google reviews.

A new undercover investigation found that a wide range of business from a stockbroker in Canary Wharf to a baker in Edinburgh were benefitting from the manipulative tactics.

The probe orchestrated by consumer organisation Which? found that the misleading information is avoiding the detection of tech giant Google.

Google says that the reviews, which appear next to listings in Maps, provide "valuable information" about businesses to customers.

The investigation involved signing up to several firms offering review manipulation services — including the posting of fake five star reviews — to business listings on Google.

In doing so, it was able to tie its sham "customers" to dozens of other highly-rated British firms.

Google says it has "significantly" invested in tech to tackle the issue.

But it and other review sites are being looked into by the trading regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, which began examining the sector last year. It has threatened enforcement action against platforms which have fallen short of their responsibilities.

HeraldScotland:

One promotional advert

Which? researchers bought 20 Google reviews for £108 ($150) from one of the review sites it uncovered, easily found through a quick Google search.

The site stated that "buying Google reviews is undoubtedly a smart choice" as "89% of consumers trust online Google reviews as much as personal recommendations." It claimed to offer "100% permanent reviews" for the platform that won’t be deleted.

One of the reviews posted by the platform was subsequently deleted, so Which? queried it with the site account manager and was told that sometimes they see “review filtering.” If that happens, the company said it slows down the rate of posting reviews so that they “stick.”

After further digging into the profiles of these reviewers, Which? then found that many of the Google accounts used to plant its fake reviews had infiltrated Google reviews "at scale" – reviewing the same selection of businesses all around the country.

Which? linked together 45 businesses that had at least three ‘reviewers’ in common - including a stockbroker in Canary Wharf, a solicitors firm in Liverpool, a dentist in Greater Manchester, a London estate agent and a bakery in Edinburgh – suggesting that each of these businesses paid the same review trading company to post the glowing appraisals.

Several of the profiles had left reviews of at least 15 businesses. Of those, all had rated an SEO advisory business in Edinburgh and a psychic in London as five stars - described as an "unlikely coincidence", by the investigators.

HeraldScotland:

Another Google reviews ad.

In some cases, the fake positive reviews were masking genuine concerns about "serious financial risk" to consumers, the investigators said.

One reviewer had left what investigators said was an "extremely unlikely" series of ratings. He had praised a Surrey-based limo hire company, stating that he had lived in the area for five years and used them for all airport trips, and in the same month used the services of a Glasgow-based electric gate installation firm for his home – locations that are 412 miles apart.

The stockbroker based in Canary Wharf had, for six months in 2020, received a raft of negative reviews - many citing “shockingly poor customer service”. One reviewer claimed to have lost £27,000 worth of investments because the business acted against his wishes, while another called the company "scammers" and a third reviewer said it was the worst broker they had ever dealt with.

During its investigation, Which? also uncovered four other review sites, that appeared to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk. They were all easily found in Google search results.

Which? said the findings have exposed concerning gaps in Google’s monitoring of its review platform, leaving people at risk of being misled into using local businesses that appear to have received glowing endorsements, but could in reality be substandard or in one case potentially even pose a serious financial risk to consumers.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently investigating the problem of fake reviews.

And to protect consumers from being misled, Which? is calling on the regulator to take strong action against sites that host reviews if it finds that they are failing to prevent fake reviews flooding their platforms.

Natalie Hitchins, head of home products and services at Which?, said: “Businesses exploiting flaws in Google’s review system to rise up the ranks are putting honest businesses on the back foot and leaving consumers at risk of being misled.

“The regulator must stamp out this harmful behaviour and hold sites to account if they fail to protect their users, otherwise the government must urgently increase websites' legal responsibilities for misleading content on their platforms.

“Google, and other sites, must clamp down on and prevent these manipulative practices to ensure that consumers can trust the reviews that they read.”

Although Google says it has clear policies that prohibit this type of activity, and mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, based on its findings, Which? has concerns that its approach is not effective enough. Online platforms that host reviews, including Google, must do more to proactively prevent fake reviews from infiltrating their sites.

A Google spokesman said: “Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and information, and we closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, using a combination of people and technology.

"When we find scammers trying to mislead people, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation," it said.

BuyServiceUSA said: "We're helping the new business to get some reviews."

It said that it’s not in breach of any terms and conditions and that its marketing service (local SEO) actually increases traffic and helps businesses to get potential customers.

Which? said that when it approached one review site, that appeared to offer Google reviews for sale in bulk, it deleted the page making the offer and denied providing fake review services. When presented with a screenshot of the page, the firm suggested the lack of a listed price as evidence that it was not selling fake reviews.