Customer reviews are crucial marketing tools for digital retailers, and Shopify’s rules for third-party app partners prohibit “apps that falsify data to deceive merchants or buyers.” Yet the new findings suggest the company, which is Canada’s biggest by market capitalization, allows review apps in its app store that could violate its own terms.
“This is a case of misinformation, and it’s unfortunate that customers are being deceived without their knowledge,” said Kristy Smith, a researcher and graduate student at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, who published the report. The school is co-run by the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank, where Ms. Smith previously worked.
“If this is the state of play on Shopify, then people are going to stop trusting reviews,” she said in an interview.
Shopify declined to comment on the findings after The Globe and Mail shared details with the company, along with publicly available links that suggest some popular apps’ reviews could be manipulated, because the whole study is not yet public.
In recent years, Shopify has offered a wide variety of services for merchants beyond just hosting web stores, including point-of-sale systems and financing plans. The Ottawa e-commerce company also has an app store filled with offerings from third-party developers that offer merchants even more functionality, such as letting customers leave reviews.
Much of Ms. Smith’s research originated with data from BuiltWith, a service that determines what technologies were used to make websites. BuiltWith analyzed 3.7 million Shopify online stores to ascertain the popularity of various review apps. (Though Shopify says it hosts 1.7 million merchants, many stores that attempt to launch on the website are believed to be short-lived.)
Ms. Smith said she also interviewed Shopify app partners to verify the accuracy of BuiltWith’s data. And she set up a “ghost” store to install the apps herself, assessing how easily a merchant could publish fake or unverifiable reviews with Shopify’s most highly rated review apps.
The researcher shared a copy of the report, and a variety of screenshots, links and other evidence of her findings, with The Globe before the report is published more broadly next week.
Of 25 top-rated review apps Ms. Smith selected for her study, she said 15 can enable reviews that could be misleading or fake. After analyzing the BuiltWith data, she found that 34 per cent of Shopify stores that allow for reviews have used those apps.
Ms. Smith also found that some of Shopify’s most popular review apps, including one called Loox, can import reviews from AliExpress, a China-based online retail service, to let a merchant create the impression of a much greater customer base for their store.
In addition, Loox can let users import text from a spreadsheet to use as reviews, creating the opportunity for fake posts. Merchants using Loox can also import only positive reviews from AliExpress, and attach their own “verified buyer” badges to reviews, Ms. Smith found.
Ali Reviews is another app that allows merchants to selectively import positive reviews from AliExpress, Ms. Smith found. And she shared a screenshot that includes a customer name generator.
In an e-mail, Loox chief executive officer Yoni Elbaz said his company is fully compliant with Shopify’s partner terms, and his company’s own terms of service “strictly forbid uploading any false, misleading, fabricated, or otherwise fraudulent content to our platform.” Shopify merchants using Loox, he said, are required to obtain “all valid authorizations, permissions and consent for imported reviews.”
Spreadsheet imports, the Loox CEO added, “allow merchants to do this for migration purposes from previous apps or sources.” And he said verified buyer badges added by merchants include a disclaimer signifying that.
The company behind AliReviews did not respond to a similar request for comment before publication.
Allegations of fake reviews are an industry-wide problem. Ahead of Black Friday, the internet transparency company Fakespot Inc. said this week that 31 per cent of reviews across some of the world’s biggest retailers and platforms, including Shopify, were fraudulent in some way.
“Everyone who shops online knows that reviews are not really trustworthy,” said Fakespot’s chief executive Saoud Khalifah. His company’s research has found that many retailers and e-commerce platforms do not take sufficient measures to fight fake reviews. “They’re more reactionary than proactive, which is disappointing for consumers.”
Ms. Smith suggested that Shopify require its app providers to disclose when reviews are imported from elsewhere, such as AliExpress, and that Shopify penalize or remove apps that violate its terms of service.
Shopify has previously removed apps from its store, including review apps, for violating its partner terms. Earlier this year, the company also removed several web stores affiliated with then-U.S. president Donald Trump after his incitement of a mob that stormed the Capitol building in Washington.
Numerous apps tested by Ms. Smith did appear to take greater caution in verifying reviews, including one provided by Yotpo Inc., an Israeli startup that Shopify invested in earlier this year.
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