New research about fake transactions on Alibaba Group’s shopping platforms underscores the challenge the e-commerce giant faces in meeting demands from China’s government to rein in the practice.
The research, conducted by four academics in the U.S., deals with a phenomenon in China known as “brushing,” or the faking of orders and customer reviews by vendors to bolster their online visibility. By paying people to pretend to be customers. vendors pad their sales figures and, in theory, boost their standing on online marketplaces, which often give more prominence to high-volume sellers with good track records.
The Ministry of Commerce said Tuesday this practice needs to be curbed and says platform operators such as Alibaba face stiff penalties for failing to provide relevant information about it to regulators.
The scale of the task is revealed in a paper by the academics slated to be published online by the International World Wide Web Conference Committee in the next month. The research team, led by Haitao Xu of the College of William and Mary and Haining Wang of the University of Delaware, monitored five platforms where merchants recruit people to do brushing, and found about 11,000 sellers from Taobao, Alibaba’s biggest shopping sites, during the two-month study.
The researchers were able to identify more than 4,000 sellers’ actual Taobao IDs and monitor how their store ratings improved. Taobao sellers who faked transactions could generally boost their online stores’ rankings at least 10 times faster than others, the academics found. One provider of brushing services was able to boost a seller’s ratings within a day to such a degree that the researchers said it would take a seller playing by the rules at least a year to accomplish.
They also found that of 4,109 sellers on Alibaba’s biggest platform, Taobao, identified as faking transactions, only 89—2.2%—were detected and penalized by Taobao. This means sellers’ stores were shut or their ratings lowered.
Alibaba declined to comment on the research paper, but said that it is “dedicated to the fight against activities like brushing.” It has said it uses sophisticated tools to identify fake transactions and scrubs them from its reporting on merchandise volume, which amounted to 1.68 trillion yuan ($274 billion) for its two main shopping platforms, Taobao and Tmall, in the fiscal year ended March 2014.
Read more at The Wall Street Journal.