The Truth Behind Online Reviews: Can They Be Trusted?

Posted in: Reputation Management

Join thousands of marketers to get the best search news in under 5 minutes. Get resources, tips and more with The Splash newsletter:

picture of a cellphone with a 5 star review listing pulled up on the screen.

If you’re reading this, you likely know that online reviews are crucial to a business’ online reputation, but consumers still distrust the validity of those reviews. This is due to many factors, such as misinformation, lack of understanding, and an overall misconception of how review sites really work. In this article, we’ll break down the most popular review sites to help you understand the true power businesses wield in their online review ratings and how to spot a fake review. 

Let’s dive in!

Do Online Reviews Really Matter?

Online reviews have become an increasingly popular resource for people researching a business or service. In fact, a study we conducted in 2023 found that dropping from a 4 to 3-star review rating led to a 70% decrease in consumer trust in a business. With this in mind, businesses are putting more effort toward building their online reputation, including managing their online review platforms. 

On the flipside, consumers are also using reviews more frequently to provide feedback to businesses they’ve interacted with. This feedback can be highly valuable to businesses, as they can use it to see where they’re doing well and what they need to improve on. Review platforms can also provide a direct line of communication from consumer to customer support, aiding in complaint resolution.

Why Do Consumers Leave Online Reviews?

As a business owner, you may wonder, “Why did my customer leave a negative review instead of contacting my business directly?” While there are many reasons why a customer might leave a positive or negative review, the main one is likely the convenience and accessibility of review sites. If a business does not make their customer service contact easy to find online, or require a deluge of menu options to reach a team member, a consumer may find it much easier to just leave a review. 

There is also an idea for many consumers that by leaving a public review of their complaints, they are more likely to get a response and/or resolution to their issue. Consumers know that businesses do not want negative reviews harming their reputation, so they assume that by leaving one, the business will work above and beyond to make things right. We see this idea amplified by things like review bombing, where hundreds or thousands of users leave negative reviews in an effort to tank a business’ ratings because they feel a business did something wrong. 

Can Businesses Delete Negative Online Reviews?

There is a common misconception that businesses have much more control over their online reviews than they actually do. For instance, you may have seen people online complain that a business has been “deleting negative reviews” on Yelp, Google, or some other review platform. But is this actually true? Can businesses really just delete all their negative reviews? 

To cut to the chase, no, there is no option for businesses to outright delete negative reviews across the most popular review platforms. But let’s take a look at what some of these platforms have to say about negative review removal: 


Negative reviews on Yelp can be deleted only by the customer who posted them. Yelp’s moderators may also filter out or remove them due to a guideline violation. 

Yelp strongly encourages businesses to provide the customer with a solution-focused, thoughtful response. If a business believes a review should be removed rather than responded to, Yelp recommends that the business report the review to moderators. It’s important to note that anyone can report a review to Yelp, not just the business itself.

Reporting a review is not guaranteed to remove it, however, and attempting to abuse Yelp’s reporting options with mass reporting of all negative reviews can still get businesses in trouble. This is why Yelp has a few precautions in place, such as removing the ability for multiple users to report a single review. If a review has already been reported before, but Yelp moderators decided at that time to keep the review up, it cannot be reported again. When reporting again, Yelp will respond with a message stating that it has already been brought to their attention and they will not be re-evaluating the decision. 

Yelp has also stated that it “stands firmly against businesses pressuring customers or paying them to change or remove reviews.” While a business could technically attempt to do this to change a negative review into a positive one, it’s well known that this is in poor taste, and could lead to some serious repercussions for the business. Businesses could even risk getting into trouble with the FTC over an undisclosed incentivized review. Because of these risks, it’s highly uncommon for a business to take such drastic measures just to have a single negative review updated to a positive one. 


If a business wants Google to remove a negative review, their only option is to report it. Google asks that businesses only report the reviews that “violate Google policies” and that you shouldn’t “report a review just because you disagree with it or don’t like it.”

While Google is not as detailed as Yelp on review removal, it’s clear that they want to remain an unbiased third party by stating that they don’t “get involved when businesses and customers disagree about facts.” 

As with Yelp, anyone can report a review on Google, not just the business itself. Within a Google Business Profile, businesses can open the Reviews Management Tool to check the status of a reported review. If Google finds that there were no policy violations, businesses are allowed a one-time appeal of the decision. After that, a review is unlikely to be re-evaluated for removal.

Aside from reporting, the only other option for a review to be removed is if the customer decides to delete it themselves, or if Google’s automated moderation tools find a guideline violation on their own. 


Although Trustpilot offers both a free and a paid version of their platform to businesses, they make it clear that there are no differences in terms of TrustScore or flagging ability between the two versions. Trustpilot states that “all businesses—free and paid—are allowed to flag reviews they believe breach our guidelines.” They also clarify that “simply not liking a review is not a legitimate reason” to flag it. 

Trustpilot does not offer businesses the option to pay for negative review removal either, and like the other review platforms, Trustpilot aims to remain an unbiased third party in the situation. When a business flags a negative review, Trustpilot will typically reach out to the reviewer to ask for some form of proof that they had a legitimate interaction with the business’ product or service. This could be an order number, a receipt, or some other documentation. If the reviewer fails to provide adequate documentation, Trustpilot will remove the review. 

Trustpilot also states that “flagging a large number of reviews or re-flagging reviews without good reason can be considered misuse of the flagging tool.” If a business is caught repeatedly abusing the flagging tool, Trustpilot will send them a warning to stop. If misuse continues, a Consumer Warning flag will appear on the business’ page, which could lead to the complete termination of any contract the business has with Trustpilot.  


Unique from other review sites, BBB (Better Business Bureau) offers both reviews and complaints on their platform. BBB explains that “a consumer files a complaint when the consumer wants BBB’s help to resolve a dispute with a company, usually (but not always) involving a monetary claim, and wants to share the outcome with the public.” In contrast, “customer reviews allow consumers to share with BBB and the public their opinion – good or bad – about companies with which they had a marketplace interaction.”

BBB does not offer the ability to flag or report complaints, unlike other review platforms. BBB states that complaints “cannot be changed, edited, or deleted once it has been submitted.” This means even the reviewer is unable to delete their own review. 

As for reviews, businesses can respond to BBB with an explanation of their side if they disagree with the customer’s statements. The only way a review can be removed is if the review contains sensitive information, such as phone numbers or addresses, or uses hate speech or abusive language. However, the decision to remove a review for these reasons is up to BBB, and businesses cannot flag or report it themselves. 

Can Businesses Buy Positive Reviews?

Along the same vein, many believe that businesses can buy or otherwise incentivize positive reviews. You may have seen ads posted for businesses like “Leave us a Google review for 15% off your next purchase!” or “Rate us on Facebook for a free basket of fries!” Is this actually allowed? Is it poor practice? While review solicitation policies can differ amongst popular review sites, they tend to follow similar guidelines when it comes to incentivized reviews. 


Review soliciting of any kind is strictly prohibited on Yelp. If a business is caught soliciting reviews, Yelp will enact a set of penalties based on the severity of the business’ activity. Paying for or incentivizing reviews in any way is also strictly prohibited, according to Yelp’s guidelines


While review solicitation is allowed on Google, the platform states that “business owners shouldn’t offer incentives to customers to leave reviews.” If Google gets a slew of positive reviews for a business, and Google has reason to believe that they were incentivized, the reviews will be removed for violating guidelines. 


Businesses are allowed to invite customers to leave feedback on Trustpilot, however, the platform warns users that “receiving an incentive to write, change or delete a review is a big no-no.” Trustpilot encourages users who receive an incentive to report it on their platform


Simply put, “BBB’s Customer Review Acceptance Policy goes beyond FTC’s legal requirements and prohibits customer reviews that are incentivized even if a disclosure is made.” Incentivizing reviews violates BBB’s Standards for Trust, and “BBB may include a notice on the Business Profile to inform consumers about the practice” if this activity is discovered. 

Does BBB Actually Force Businesses to Resolve Complaints?

While discussing the authenticity of review sites, we find it important to clear up some misinformation regarding the BBB. There seems to be an overarching idea that the BBB has direct power or control over businesses, and can actually take steps to force businesses to resolve complaints. In order to explain the validity of this idea, let’s first build an understanding of the Better Business Bureau.

What is the Better Business Bureau?

The Better Business Bureau, commonly known as the BBB, is self-described as a platform that “sets standards for ethical business behavior and monitors compliance.” This description, combined with the “bureau” in the name, has led many to believe that the BBB has government connections. 

Is the BBB Affiliated with Government Organizations?

The truth is that the BBB is yet another privately owned organization like Yelp, Trustpilot, and other review platforms. As explained on Wikipedia, the “Better Business Bureau is not affiliated with any governmental agency,” and although their “policy is to refrain from recommending or endorsing any specific business … they still advocate for business interests.”

To be clear, we do not believe that the BBB is engaging in any deceptive activities to mislead consumers into believing they have more power over businesses than they actually do. However, between the name, description, and consumer perception, the BBB has built their reputation as a leading platform for consumer-business resolution. 

Why do Businesses Care About BBB Ratings?

Businesses tend to take BBB more seriously than other platforms because they know consumers hold BBB ratings to a higher standard and that a negative letter or star rating on the platform can really tank consumers’ trust in a business. BBB also tends to rank highly in businesses’ search results, especially for a query like “[business name] reviews.” 

This, in turn, encourages businesses to resolve complaints and come to a resolution with all customers on the BBB platform. Additionally, businesses cannot maintain a good letter rating on BBB if they are not actively responding to and working toward complaint resolutions. Luckily for businesses, the BBB is happy to aid them in improving their reputation on the platform by providing an accreditation program. In order to be accredited, a business must meet the BBB’s accreditation standards, as well as pay a yearly membership fee to the platform. 

How to Spot a Fake Review

Now that we’ve discussed the popular review platforms’ guidelines on review deletion and incentivization, let’s take a look at reasons why a fake or biased review may still end up on a review site. 

Despite their policies and moderation tools, no review platform can catch 100% of false or biased reviews. These platforms can’t know for sure if a review was incentivized, whether the reviewer has a conflict of interest with the business, or if the review content is genuine. They also can’t know if a business is verbally requesting or incentivizing reviews against guidelines unless reported. 

This is why most popular review platforms offer some form of review reporting or flagging to both the business and outside parties. These tools help keep ratings honest and aid platforms in catching fake reviews that their automated filters may have missed. It’s important to note that although anyone can technically flag any review for any reason, the decision to remove is ultimately up to the review platform’s moderators. There is no magic number of review flags that automatically equate to a review being removed. 

So, how do you spot a fake, biased, or incentivized review when researching a company? Here are a few things to look out for:

  • The review is overly positive or lacks detail: While you can’t assume that every positive review was incentivized, it’s always a good idea to take overly positive reviews with a grain of salt. Some review sites, like Yelp and Trustpilot, value the description of a genuine consumer experience in their reviews. If you see a review on these platforms that is unusually short and generic, it may not be authentic. Keep in mind that reviewers who had a negative experience are more likely to provide detail than those who had a positive one, so this should not be your only reason for believing a review is fake. 
  • The review has nothing to do with the entity being reviewed: A big red flag when reading through reviews is if the content of the review has nothing to do with the entity being reviewed. For instance, sometimes the content of the review is just the reviewer’s name, all emojis, or some other form of gibberish unrelated to the entity. 
  • The review listing features mass amounts of reviews within a short time period: If your local small-owned donut shop suddenly has 200 overly positive or overly negative reviews, you may have cause for suspicion. Mass amounts of overly positive reviews within a short period of time could suggest that a business put some sort of incentivization in place to encourage customers to leave positive reviews. Conversely, mass amounts of negative reviews could be a review bombing attack on a business. 
  • Multiple reviews use the same content: If you see multiple reviews using the exact same sentence(s), it’s likely that they are bots copying and pasting the text into multiple review submissions. 
  • The reviewer explains a bias within their review: This will be one of the more obvious tells, but there are some reviewers that actually write within the review content that a business incentivized them to leave a positive review. We can also see this with negative reviews in reviewing bombing attacks, where the reviewer will state that they saw something negative about the business online, which prompted them to leave a bad review. This makes it clear that the reviewer likely did not have a personal experience with the business. 

If you suspect a review is fake, biased, incentivized, or violating a review platform’s guidelines in any way, you are welcome to report that review to the platform. This helps keep review listings authentic, accurate, and free of misleading reviews. 

Research Reviews with Confidence

With the developments of AI and the increasing spread of misinformation online, it’s important for consumers to be educated and up to date on the inner workings of popular review platforms. With the right tools and knowledge, consumers can feel confident researching a business’ review listings. It’s clear that online review platforms have put many safety precautions in place to keep their review content authentic, however, it’s still important for consumers to take what they read with a grain of salt. 

Businesses should also remain up to date on each review platform’s guidelines and policies for review solicitation, incentivization, and flagging. A consumer warning posted on a business’ review listing can be detrimental to consumer trust. Complaint resolution and customer satisfaction should be the number one priority for all businesses and are ultimately what will build trust for other potential customers reading through the reviews. 

If you need assistance managing your business’ review platforms, Go Fish Digital can help. Our Online Reputation Management team is experienced in managing the most popular review platforms and can help you build a customized review management strategy that gets your business’ reputation on track. Contact us today to learn more! 

Search News Straight To Your Inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


Join thousands of marketers to get the best search news in under 5 minutes. Get resources, tips and more with The Splash newsletter: