Unethical but seemingly common practice
Realtor reviews and testimonials have always been riddled with fakes- agents who write their own testimonials with fake accolades, touting their “integrity” and “superior service” and the like. Those inside the industry can typically spot a fake when we see the full name of the brokerage in the review (consumers typically use an agent’s name or a shortened version of the brokerage name, not Joe Bob Williams Team Realty International LLC Number One), or unnatural language that looks eerily like a real estate website template (“my number one agent provided top notch real estate negotiations in real estate transactions”).
Have consumers become hip to the sketchy reviews written by Realtors on their own sites and printed in their collateral? Most likely, yes. The good news is that the rise of social networking is rapidly changing the review methods and reviews left are tied to a person and their real identity, for example, on Facebook or Yelp. Consumers are more willing to be honest and open if they have to legitimize a review with their true identity, plus this makes it more difficult for the fake Realtor reviews of yesteryear to rise to the top. Consumers have a nose for fake, overly-floral reviews and expect natural language.
The new sketchy trend is for businesses (not just Realtors) to hire fake online review writers. Cruise Craigslist in your city, and you’ll see Realtors, retailers, plumbers and lenders paying $5 to $10 for a legitimate user to give them a review, so long as that user has an active Yelp account or a similar account. This gets businesses around having to make fake accounts and keep them active, instead, just pay a few bucks for a fake review. The truth is, the reviews look real, are written in natural language and are by a legitimate person, not “Thomas H. of Dallas, Texas” who has no bio or picture.
Picking up deceptive cues online
Not only is hiring fake review writers unethical, it sullies the entire review process. There is no way to tell the full extent of how many reviews online on real users’ accounts are fake, but Cornell University has studied the legitimacy of online reviews and has spotted some deceptive indicators as published in the New York Times, with human subjects unable to tell real reviews from fake reviews.
The above review doesn’t start off as strongly deceptive and appears to be in relatively natural language, but the repetition of these cues made for an obvious pattern to the Cornell researchers. Immediately, we were dubious and opened our own Yelp accounts and were shocked that none of us had started a single review with “my [spouse] and I,” even though we would say that out loud naturally. We also rarely used the actual business’ name in the reviews and didn’t use “I” and “me” very frequently (although some of us are very enthusiastic and used exclamation marks frequently, but mostly in negative reviews).
We’ll see this trend of paid reviews for people looking to make a quick buck in a down market, and Realtors are already using and will undoubtedly increase use of these willing reviewers, making for a repeat of history where agents are painted as being “number one,” having “impeccable integrity” and “superior service,” along with the new patterns in fake web reviews as discovered by Cornell researchers.