Social Proof: Are They Faking It?

We’ve all used social proof (in one form or another) to help us make a decision, especially in situations where we’re feeling unsure. That “proof” could take many forms, such as:

  • Glancing around to see which restaurant seems to be most popular
  • Noticing how many subscribers a blog has
  • Seeing a celebrity endorsement
  • McDonalds with its “billions and billions served” signs
  • Tweet counters & Facebook thumbs-up counters
  • Testimonials
  • Online reviews and star ratings
  • Etc.

As Yaro Starak says, “Social Proof exists because we group together in a society. All other people around you and what choices they make, are pushing or pulling you to do or not do certain things. This is an incredibly strong force when it comes to influencing our behaviors.”

Social proof can be faked

The thing is, social proof can be faked. And it’s especially easy to do online. Let me show you a quick example. See this?

With less than a minutes’ work, I could magically appear to have close to 70K more subscribers than I truly have.

Of course, I wouldn’t actually do that outside of this example. (And I hope someday my subscriber count will say that for real!) But an unscrupulous person could.

Why might they? If you go to a blog with many thousands of subscribers, chances are you’re going to say “Wow, I should check this out further.” If you then like what you see, you’re probably going to subscribe, and maybe pass along what you read there, inflating their actual subscriber count and increasing traffic. (To be clear, I’m not aware of any blogs that do this. It was just a simple thing for me to fake as an example.)

Beware of fake social proof

But fake social proof does happen for real. Especially in the online review world. (See Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core and FTC Settles with Reverb over iTunes Reviews for two big kerfuffles surrounding online reviews.)

So you’ve got to beware.

The shape & distribution of star ratings is one indicator I use to decide whether or not I believe online reviews are real — especially if there are a decent number of reviews for a particular product.

For example, I get suspicious if the distribution is C-shaped, with lots of both 5-star & 1-star reviews:

Large numbers of both positive & negative reviews cause me to investigate further. If it turns out that there are a bunch of people saying they’ve had issues, and then they’re followed by a bunch saying everything’s great now that the issues have been fixed, that’s one thing. But if I see a whole bunch of “Wow this is the best thing EVER!” type reviews mixed in with a ton of “This sucks. XYZ is happening.” type reviews, I’m inclined to believe at least some of the reviews have been faked.

On the other hand, if I see an upside-down L-shaped distribution:

I’m inclined to give the reviews more weight. There will always be people who are unhappy with a product or service, so I don’t expect perfection. But if most people appear to be happy — or even if things are spread out more evenly across star ratings — I tend to read the reviews more closely.

Trust, but verify

As Ronald Regan said, “Trust, but verify.” Be aware of how social proof can influence your buying decision. After all, you are the person your purchase will impact most. Check out any explicit social proof that’s being presented, and try to verify that it’s all above-board if you can.

One example of a company that’s using verifiable social proof is A Small Orange. Their testimonials page says, “Don’t just take our word for it – see what our customers have to say about us. The following are actual tweets from customers of A Small Orange.”

They’ve embedded the tweets on that page, which means it’s easy for users to click over and see that yes, someone really did say that on twitter.

Regardless, make sure you always remember that other famous saying: caveat emptor. And if you like a product or service, by all means make someone’s day by giving it a positive review — especially if the company has gone above and beyond your expectations.

What has your experience been with social proof? Have there been cases when you’ve been swayed one way or the other by a review, and then later regretted it?


  • I tend to look for the inverted L myself. I usually read the negative post quickly to see if they are saying the same thing. When I see a comment repeated, I give it more weight than just a random person complaining.

    • Now see, when I see a comment repeated, I tend to wonder if someone is just copy-pasting something. Although it depends what they’re commenting about.

  • Also too for FB and Twitter profiles fake “likes” and “follows” can be bought for really cheap. So you really have to look at the posts and see how many people are commenting and liking statuses and retweeting tweets. If a person has 100,000 followers but gets no retweets on their status updates the follows are obviously fake.


  • I’ve never really considered this – or known there was an actual term for it – but I know I’m as guilty as the next person for wanting to be a part of something that’s “popular.” Love the “L-shaped” idea – I’m going to be paying attention to that in the future!

  • Beth

    Your L-shape is interesting. Personally, I usually read the negative reviews first. I think that something controversial will sometimes get a C-shape because people either hate it or love it. Examples of this are books pushing a particular view on politics and religion.

    • Controversial subjects can definitely produce the inverted L-shapes — I hadn’t even thought about that but that makes a whole lot of sense.