Did Belkin Really Need Fake User Reviews?

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The story broke on an obscure blog in mid-January and quickly spread all over the Web: A Belkin employee had been caught posting ads offering payment to people who would write positive user reviews of the company's products, or mark negative reviews by others as "unhelpful."

In what appeared to be a tacit confirmation of the story, Belkin president Mark Reynoso posted a public apology that repudiated the employee's action, described them as an "isolated incident," and said the company was working to identify and eliminate any bogus reviews that may have resulted.

PC World has written about fake user reviews before. But my question is, did Belkin really need to pay for positive reviews? Are its products so unworthy that without fake endorsements, few people would buy them? As someone who has written and edited PC World articles and reviews about a wide variety of Belkin products over the years, I knew the answer right away: No.

This isn't to say that Belkin is the Rolls-Royce of tech companies. (I'm not sure such a company even exists these days.) Historically, it's been a purveyor of fairly inexpensive accessories for notebooks, iPhones, and iPods, as well as other electronics. In more recent years, Belkin has also acquired a reputation for its lines of what's euphemistically called "value" (read "cheap") home networking gear. So in terms of reputation we're talking more Ford Focus than luxury limo.

But while Belkin rarely stars in roundup reviews where its products were pitted against similar ones from competitors, it rarely tanks. Last year, for example, we rated its low-end (two-antenna) draft-802.11n router (Belkin N Wireless Router F5D8233-4 V3) as "good," describing its design, usability, features, and customer service as "stellar." Its PCW rating of 73 primarily reflected its entry-level specifications in a roundup that also included much more expensive routers with advanced features, and it trounced the only other entry-level unit, a D-Link model that scored 61.

Looking back even further, Belkin was the first company to market products using the MIMO antenna technology that underlies the current generation of Wi-Fi gear. I tested that first pre-N router (which used proprietary technology from Airgo Networks, since absorbed by Qualcomm) and came away highly impressed.

And in our most recent reliability and service surveys of Wi-Fi routers, Belkin performed very well, just slightly behind top-ranked Apple.

I'm not defending the Belkin employee's actions, of course, and I naturally can't help wondering whether he was acting under directions from higher-ups. But this does not look like a company that should be desperate for positive word of mouth. So I'd take the complaints about its products (mostly about routers) that surfaced in blogs and forums after the fake user-review scandal broke with a grain of salt. A few rotten apples in the barrel shouldn't negate things that the company has obviously gotten right.

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