Consumer advice

Online User Reviews: Can They Be Trusted?

Anyone can write a product review, and everybody reads them. But can you trust them? I refer, of course, to reader or user reviews, the kind you find on Amazon, Buy.com, Epinions, PC World, Yelp, and even the sites of tech product manufacturers, such as Dell. They're everywhere.

But it's the fraudulent reviews--positive reviews contributed by "readers" paid by the company being evaluated--that worry critics and advocates alike.

In an October 2007 poll conducted by the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, 1000 savvy Web consumers (dubbed "e-fluentials" by some wordsmith who evidently was unfamiliar with the term "effluent") were clearly convinced that fake reviews are endemic--and could result in a backlash from online consumers.

The numbers tell the tale: 48% (up from 39% in 2001) believe that fake reviews are being planted on consumer sites. 57% say they won't buy a product if the reader reviews seem suspect. And a whopping 76% claim to double-check what they read online. All are signs of a healthy skepticism.

So, how pervasive are falsified reviews?

Beau Brendler, Director of Consumer Reports' WebWatch site, says that the bottom line is: "[Fake reviews] happen all the time--but proving it, quantifying it--is very hard."

WebWatch--whose motto is "Look Before You Click"--says on its site that its credibility campaign has led more than 170 sites, including CNN, CNet, The New York Times, Travelocity, and Orbitz to agree to uphold WebWatch's credibility guidelines.

Barbara Kasser, author of Online Shopping Directory For Dummies and Internet Shopping Yellow Pages , says: "There's no way to check the reviewer's veracity or if they're on the take--they're anonymous." Another concern: the reviewer might not be competent. "How did [the reviewer] use the product? Did they use it properly? Did they follow the manufacturer's directions? There's no way to know," she points out.

Why So Enticing?

Many ordinary people consider reviews written by consumers to be more reliable, more critical, and ultimately, more useful than many other sources of information. At least that's what they told The Nielsen Company in a survey conducted in April 2007. In a group of 13 (mostly advertising-oriented) information sources, the three most trusted ones were "Recommendations from consumers" (78%), "Newspapers" (63%), and "Consumer opinions posted online" (61%). (In a story that PC World posted in 2003, we generally agreed with the above perceptions--but we're a bit more cynical now.)

Certainly, reader reviews have come a long way since the era of Usenet and reader forums. Depending on the site and its readers, you may find pithy commentary, long-winded rants, numeric ratings, pros and cons, graphs, and even reviewer videos.

But Mitch Meyerson, author of the book Guerilla Marketing on the Internet, thinks that "influenced" reviews (paid for or not) are pretty common. For example, says Meyerson, "authors often enlist friends, colleagues, and clients to review their books on Amazon."

According to Blogging Tips founder and Web developer Kevin Muldoon, "tech sites usually have fair, accurate [reader] reviews...but there are definitely more fake reviews [on sites] covering cosmetics and hotels." Read Muldoon's blog entry on his own guidelines for how he reviews products.

How Fake Reviews Work

The purveyors of this shadowy trade wouldn't talk to us on the record. But their methods--confirmed by many of the sites we talked to--are pretty clear.

Gaming the system involves more than just planting a review or two. It means creating multiple personalities and voices, crafting realistic conversations among those personalities, and using other tricks honed by stealth marketers and paid bloggers. (See Dan Tynan's "This Blog for Hire" for more information on how this works.)

"[These reviewers] are pretty fringe", says Ben McConnell, cofounder of the Church of the Customer Blog. "They come and go, change their names. They're like roaches, scuttling away when the lights are turned on."

Not surprisingly, the vendors, resellers, and meta-opinion sites we interviewed maintain that fake reviews are a very minor problem. There are safeguards to prevent most fake reviews from getting through, they say--and besides, readers aren't stupid.

"There's no way to vet the thousands of reviewers on Amazon," says Patty Smith, the company's director of corporate communications. "But we don't need to. When readers see 25 negative reviews and one glowing one--well, they can figure it out."

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