It was a Sunday afternoon, usually earmarked for quiet lunches with family, when an email arrived from the obscure address firstname.lastname@example.org. The sender had taken care to stay anonymous through the generic email address, and even the message contained no giveaway – not even a sign off at the end. But I knew who it was, and receiving an email from them meant something was not right.
“500 reviews done by you have been cancelled because of similar wording,” the email said. “Please reframe them by going through the products once more and using your imagination to describe them in a different manner. Don’t use adjectives to praise the product but just tell us how *you* felt after using them – even if you haven’t. Or just use a thesaurus.”
Great! Forty-eight hours of my work had just been scrapped, I thought, but responded with a polite apology, seeking time to fix the reviews.
Labour is cheap
There is nothing easy about writing fake reviews for an e-commerce website. Especially not one that aims to compete with the best in the industry. It is particularly hard if you are a man, and dress like one, to imagine how it feels wearing a red stole with polka dots, or a chocolate-coloured lipstick.
For three months one summer, that was my job: to write 3,000 fake reviews for products under the women’s category, and add another 1,000 comments on the product pages of the website. The brief was simple: the reviews should look as real as possible, while the comments should look as though you were “dying to buy this product”.
The words used to describe the product could not be repeated in the reviews or comments. There were strict deadlines for completing each “bucket” of products – a category within a category – and those who tried to rush by rephrasing the same sentences were penalised with 100 extra reviews.
Each fake reviewer was commissioned to write 3,000 reviews and 1,000 comments in three months. However, there was no way to know your progress, since the company would reveal the final numbers at the end of the month. This meant that one wrote more reviews than actually required, in anticipation of the fact that some might be rejected for not being “up to the mark” (while they were used for free, elsewhere on the website).
“Please keep an idea of how many comments [and reviews] you are making, to avoid any kind of confusion. Back-end records exist but they are evaluated only at the end... so it is up to you to stay up-to-date with the status of your work,” an email said, when I queried about the progress of my work.
The categories were distributed without any consideration of a person’s experience, preference or, in my case, gender. At one point, I was writing reviews and comments on women’s bags, jewellery, sandals and even underwear.
“This fabric is high-quality and value for money. It’s almost as good as wearing nothing,” was one example shared with us, which we were supposed to use as a creative template for our own lingerie reviews.
How difficult can it be to write three sentences about 50 products a day? I had wondered before I applied, but much to my astonishment, it wasn’t easy money at all.
Raise your standards
“Quality is key,” another email announced in bold red capital letters. But how much imagination and dedication can you muster when you are paid just Rs 5 per fake review? The payment was limited to the reviews that were accepted. If the moderator did not like a review, you did not get paid for it.
Overall, only half of the total reviews I wrote for the website were accepted, but I frequently found the ones rejected, plastered on other products, outside the allotted category.
For instance, I wrote this about a black handbag for women: “The price of this product is very misleading since the quality is far more superior than I imagined. It handles cash and cards well and I am happy with the purchase.”
This review was rejected for being “too vague” and “superficial”. A few days later, however, I saw it on the page of a men’s wallet. Essentially, no labour was wasted for the company, it could always be used to describe some other product, and they wouldn’t even have to pay for it.
The supervisor overseeing this project was not from the company, but a college senior working as a freelancer. She put together a team of 20, including me. We were given individual targets and timelines to populate reviews and comments on almost all the products on the site.
We worked at least 15 hours a day, were paid mainly through shopping vouchers we could spend on the same website, and were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure that we never put the jobs on our resumés.
At the end of all this, we were yelled at by our supervisor for not doing “quality work”, and told to be grateful to the company, which continued to employ us.
“All of you need to work better. These reviews are way below our quality standards, and people are working full time to fix these. The company won’t hold your payments, but you should have enough conscience to at least deliver what you promised,” read one censorious email.
No frauds here, move along
It was the horror of having nothing to do during a three-month-long summer vacation that had done me in. A college senior had forwarded a link to this innocuous-sounding “marketing internship”, and I had applied without an inkling of what was coming. There was more than enough work to keep me occupied through the day, and most nights – but for anyone creatively inclined, it was a soul-crushing exercise with no end in sight.
Fake reviews form an important part of a bustling e-commerce industry. Everywhere in the world, websites and companies offer fake reviews as a service for their clients. E-commerce websites or even those selling specific products avail of the service in order to appear popular among users.
The task of churning out reviews by thousands isn’t too expensive in India. An industry insider told me that fake reviews can be obtained for as little as Rs 5 to Rs 10 per review, with a contract of delivering at least 1,000 “acceptable” ones.
Every day, after I had finished my quota of reviews, I would wait for an acknowledgement from the company’s content team to make sure that they had logged my work hours and reviews in the system. I did not want to work for free. I was promised Rs 5,000 in cash and Rs 10,000 in vouchers, but a month into the internship, I just wanted to quit. That did not happen.
Once, due to a slip up, a content manager revealed their name on an email thread. I looked for their number online, so I could speak to a human being about about my unhappiness with the category I had been allotted. When they picked up the call, I asked if I could quit immediately. They cut me short, saying all communication should be through the supervisor of the project, and that I should “never ever” call any company employee again.
The manager never picked up calls or sent me an email again.
“Can I at least visit the office once to discuss this?” I asked the supervisor, and was told that she was not even allowed past the main gate.
And so, I carried on writing reviews. I lost sleep trying to learn new adjectives that could describe products, trawled Amazon and eBay late into the night, trying to figure how real people would actually review something they used, wondering if I should sub-contract my job out to some other poor soul.
In August, the assignment was finally over. As I waited for a call to collect my cheque and the prized certificate, the college supervisor disappeared. People began to mail her en masse, frantically seeking payment, but she responded only once, saying that the people running the company were not “frauds”, and that we would be informed once our payments were ready.
When the day finally arrived, we were asked to come to the nearest Metro station, go behind a McDonald’s restaurant located two lanes away from the company office. I found it odd, but followed her directions. In that dark alley, a security guard appeared and quickly handed me an envelope with a cheque of Rs 4,000 with some shopping vouchers. He indicated that I should leave.
Two months later, I ran into the college supervisor on a bus and asked her what her plans were, now that she had graduated.
“I have been employed by the e-commerce company after they saw my performance on the fake review project,” she said. “Let me know if you would like to write more for men’s categories this time.”