What’s The Deal with Invalid Reviews?

tl;dr: Don’t make reviews for your own pluginPlugin A plugin is a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. WordPress plugins are written in the PHP programming language and integrate seamlessly with WordPress. These can be free in the WordPress.org Plugin Directory https://wordpress.org/plugins/ or can be cost-based plugin from a third-party(s) using other people’s accounts. We will remove them and warn you first, and if it keeps happening, your plugin will be closed.

There have been a lot of reviews being removed for being invalid in ways beyond a ‘normal’ sockpuppetSockpuppet A false online identity, typically created by a person or group in order to promote their own opinions or views. Generally used to promote or down-vote plugins en masse..

We know this is messy and scary because any time we say ‘Do bad things, and your plugin(s) will be closed!’ is a terrifying prospect. We really do know that. We really don’t want to do it, which is why we warn people instead of just closing everyone who makes mistakes. Our goal is, and has always been, to make a place where users can download functional, safe, plugins that solve the problems faced by users.

At the same time, we know that developers want people to use their plugins, and one of the ways that happens is by being popular. And yes, one of the ways to become ‘popular’ is to get a lot of good reviews. Which is how we get here. Sometimes people leave reviews for their own plugins. Actually, a lot of the time.

We’re not talking about an individual developer using their developer account to leave a review on their own plugin. While that’s weird and pretty pointless in the long run, it’s not currently prohibited and we leave those alone unless you’ve been flagged for fake reviews in general. Instead we recommend you not review your own plugins since it doesn’t help you out. People generally assume you like your own plugin, so your users won’t learn anything from the review, and since you left it yourself, you won’t learn anything either, making it a net-loss.

The kinds of reviews we’re talking about is when someone (or a group of someones) makes multiple accounts with which to leave reviews about plugins. And this is a global issue. Fake reviews are a huge problem not just on WordPress.orgWordPress.org The community site where WordPress code is created and shared by the users. This is where you can download the source code for WordPress core, plugins and themes as well as the central location for community conversations and organization. https://wordpress.org/. Amazon in particular is filled with fake reviews, and they’re getting harder and harder to spot. It’s an ongoing battle to spot them before they get ‘too bad.’ We aren’t perfect, and that’s why the first time we see someone leaving fake reviews, we warn them. What happens after that is usually pretty telling.

One big thing to keep in mind, reviews are for two purposes:

  1. Your users can see how other people feel about your plugins (and how you handle bad reviews)
  2. You can see how people really feel about you and your work

Both of those things, when they’re positive, can help your plugin become more popular. And of course, if they’re negative, it can hurt you. Which is why people work so hard to earn and merit positive reviews.

What is a fake/invalid review?

A fake review is a review made by someone who is not your actual user.

Sounds simple, right? If you write a review for someone else about your own product and hide who you are, that’s fake. The most common reason this happens is that an intern or a marketer gets the bright idea to share customer stories on the WordPress.org review system. The problem? They’re posting for the customer, which is making a fake review.

Another common way to make fake reviews is to use sockpuppets.

What’s a sockpuppet?

A sock puppet or sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term references the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock, and was originally referred to a false identity assumed by someone to hide who they are and talk up themselves.

For example, if you make a second account and post a question about your plugin and then reply as your normal account? You’ve made a sockpuppet.

Sockpuppet accounts are very commonly used to leave positive reviews on plugins.

What’s an invalid review?

An invalid review is one that was made under duress or other promotional encouragement, or one that was made on behalf of a real person.

For example, if you offer a discount for your products if a user leaves a review, then you’ve actually just bribed them for a review, which makes it an invalid review. When people are compensated for a review, they generally leave better ones than they might if you just asked. Related to this, if you tell someone you won’t refund their money unless they leave a positive review, you’ve blackmailed them, and that too is invalid.

As another example, if someone leaves a great review for you via email or on your website, and you help them make a user account on WordPress.org (or make it for them) just to leave that review, you have invalidate their review. We have no way to be sure you didn’t alter the review, and your involvement could have altered the review content simply by being there.

Another kind of invalid review would be one made by someone with a personal, or professional, relationship to you. In other words, if you ask your parents or co-workers or people who share a co-working-location to leave a review, you’ve inadvertently asked them to make invalid reviews. This is a little touchy, since sometimes they are your users. The issue here is that people who know you are more include to leave favorable reviews, but also they can tell you to your face (virtual or otherwise) how they feel. You don’t actually need their review, and they can be more honest by talking to you via your existing connections.

A counter to this is sometimes your friends do legitimately use your plugin and see the note “Please review!” in wp-admin and leave you a review. Those are totally fine and rarely raise red flags.

How do you know the review isn’t real?

More or less the same way people know when a term paper is plagiarized.

There are significant tells in most reviews that give away the actual author. We also take into account things like the age of the user (that is, how long ago did they create their account), what their other actions were, where they logged in from, what their digital footprint is, what their email is, etc etc. Then we compare that to all the other reviews made for that plugin and for other plugins and themes around the same time.

Or, as we tell people, we have a complex set of heuristics, as well as researchers who are experts with tracking down users.

Why can’t you provide details?

Two reasons which sum up as privacy and security.

First, the more we let on about exactly how we do this, the more people will learn about how to get around them. It’s like spam. The more spammers know about how they’re caught, the more they work to get around those limits.

Second, and this is more important, some of that information is private. Telling people exactly who did the bad thing, how we know, and sharing IPs and emails, is a privacy violation. It would run afoul of GDPR related laws, which by the way is also the case in some states in the US (like California).

I reported a review/account as fake, why did someone tell me it wasn’t?

Because it wasn’t.

The majority of reviews reported as ‘fake’ come from developers reporting a brand new user whose only post in the forums is a negative review on their product.

This does not mean the account is fake. It doesn’t even mean the review is invalid. It means someone was angry enough to make an account and leave a review. That’s a pretty painful thing to get, I know, but just because someone doesn’t like your work doesn’t mean they or their comment is invalid.

We use our tools to check on the account and will remove anything that we can prove is fake, but a lot of the time it’s really just angry users.

I heard you track VPN usage, is that true?

No, we don’t track VPN usage, but we do take it’s use into consideration.

There’s nothing wrong with using a VPN. I’m writing this post on one. What’s wrong is people using VPNs to get around things like bans or to hide their accounts. That’s why flagging the use of a VPN (and which specific VPN it is) is a part of our process, but it’s not the ultimate be-all and end-all of things.

Keep in mind, there are certain VPNs utilized heavily by malicious actors. Some specifically exist to be used to generate fake reviews. If your company is using a VPN, make sure it’s a legit one (not one of those free, fly by night, ones).

What happens if my plugin is flagged for fake reviews?

First of all, you’ll get a warning. In general this is how everyone finds out about being flagged. We will make a note in your plugin as well as on the accounts used.

In that warning email, you will be told why you got flagged, that we saw the reviews and they’ve been removed, and that all suspect accounts have been suspended. We have read-receipts on our emails, so we know if/when someone read it. That means the situation persists, and no one read the email, we will close your plugins to force you to pay attention. If it keeps happening after that, you will find your plugins and account closed.

The email also explains that all we want is for the fake reviews to stop. Mistakes happen, please don’t do it again.

Why did some of my reviews vanish and I wasn’t warned?

That means either you noticed before you got the email or (more common) we figured out someone else was trying to frame you. We usually don’t tell you so as not to scare you. Removing invalid reviews is a regular occurrence for every single review-platform, and if we told you every time we removed a spam or fake review, you’d get real tired of it real fast.

Some valid reviews were removed, how do I get them back?

In most cases, you won’t.

We know that the reviews appear valid to you, but we can see things you cannot. Just for an example, a real user of yours wouldn’t use a VPN from Russia and a disposable email address to leave that glowing review which is identical to another review also left from Canada and a different VPN at the same time. Also some users think it’s a great idea to make fake accounts to promote you. We have no idea why they think that, but we will remove those and the user will be banned, so all their reviews become invalid.

There’s also a common trend where companies make reviews for people. They get a good testimonial and make a review using that. Sounds smart, but it’s still spamming.

What do I do if I get warned for fake reviews and I know I didn’t do it?

As horrible as this sounds… Are you sure? Double check. Do you work with anyone else? Do you share a co-working place with others? Do you and your company all use the same VPN? Did you ask a bunch of people at an in-person event to leave a review? Did your spouse tell you how cool your plugin was and leave a review? All those things can set up warning flags because they mimic suspicious actions.

If any of those sound familiar, fess up. Just tell us “Hey, I’m sorry, I asked my coworkers/spouse/family to leave reviews. I didn’t realize how that looks.”

If you’re still certain you didn’t do it, just tell us. “I don’t work with anyone else, and I know I didn’t do this.” We’ll check again. It’s possible that someone’s trying to attack you, and while we make every effort to be as certain as we can be that it’s not that, we’re not perfect any more than you.

We are very well aware how painful and scary the email is, and we’ve worked on the language to try and make sure it’s less so.

I got warned for fake reviews and it was my fault. Now what?

Apologize and don’t do it again. Seriously, that’s it. Mistakes happen, and it’s okay if you make one. Just don’t repeat it. We absolutely, totally, forgive honest mistakes.

We do remind you to make sure everyone who works with you on the plugin knows this. You are responsible for the actions your employees/coworkers/etc take on your behalf. If they spam, you are on the hook for their actions. Usually we see repeat infractions come from that.

I got emailed that one of my support reps was banned for fake reviews. Can I help them resolve this?

In most cases, yes. However you will be asked to formally take responsibility for all of that person’s actions on WordPress.org for as long as they represent your company. That means everything they do is your responsibility and if they violate any guidelines, you will be on the hook for that infraction.

In some cases, the person is permanently banned and that generally means it’s related to previous guideline issues. If that is the case, we will explain that, under no circumstances, are you to help this person regain access. We recognize that sometimes employees or staff go rogue, and we are attempting to insulate your from their behavior.

How can I be sure I won’t be accidentally flagged for fake reviews?

Glad you asked! Besides the obvious (don’t hire people to boost your review rating), you should be aware of the following:

  • Don’t ask people you work with (either the same company or share a coworking space) to leave reviews
  • Don’t ask people to leave a review in your physical presence
  • Don’t ask your family/friends to leave reviews
  • Don’t offer people a ‘reward’ for reviews (that’s bribery)
  • Don’t make accounts for people to leave reviews
  • Don’t require a review for anything (i.e. ‘You get a free X if you leave a review!’)
  • Use only reputable VPN services (if it’s free, don’t use them)
  • Make sure every person you work with, who uses the WP.org forums, has their OWN account

How do I get more valid reviews?

You can (and should) ask your users! Put a notice on your plugin settings page. Make a dismissable alert that asks people to review. Post on Twitter or your website. But really? It’s down to asking your users in a kind, and non spammy, way. Those people will leave the reviews you need.

Why I shouldn’t ask people I know to leave reviews?

I understand why people get confused about this one. Asking people for reviews is fine, but then to say asking people you know isn’t? Yeah that sounds weird. But the crux is to think about what a review is for in the first place.

A review is someone’s experience with your plugin. For good or ill, it’s them using the plugin and sharing their story.

If you’re asking people to leave reviews to learn about what they do and don’t like about your plugin, then there’s no point to asking folks you know since you can just … ask them. In turn, they can just tell you to your face how they feel. Also they’re generally more inclined to leave good reviews, though I will admit we’ve seen someone leave a 1-star review for their spouse.

Interestingly, that review was invalid, as the review was a personal attack on the developer.

Questions? Concerns?

Have a shout.

#guidelines, #reminder, #reviews