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Can you really trust online customer reviews?

Employees of the online review site Yelp at the new East Coast headquarters of the tech company on Oct. 26, 2011 in New York City.

When you want to buy something online, you always check the customer reviews, right? Thinking about hitting a local restaurant you haven't been to before? Probably want to check Yelp.com or something like that to see what other people thought of it. Shopping for a hotel? Yeah, same thing. Check up on that place first. Most people do it. "Consumer Reports does regular research to figure out how people make product decisions, and we always find that user reviews are very high on the list," says Consumer Reports editorial director Kevin McKean.

But can you trust what you read? Amazon.com recently deleted a lot of reviews for a particular brand of protective case designed to fit the Kindle Fire tablet computer. Turns out the makers of the case were paying people to write positive reviews. That's illegal according to the Federal Trade Commission. 

So what can you do to make sure what you're reading is the real scoop? "You want to look for reviews where you have a good sense person has actually used the product," says McKean. "You want to look for reviews that are a mix of good and bad information, like I tried to use this for this specific purpose but it didn't work for this specific reason."

Some of the sites are trying to fight back against fake reviews, because for a store like Amazon, the customer review system represents credibility of the entire enterprise. "Amazon has a really important new feature," says Jeff Hancock, a professor of communications at Cornell University who's been researching the issue. "They indicate whether the person had purchased the product or not. If they had purchased it, our research shows there's less likely to be deception. It's not a guarantee, but because it raises the cost of doing a fake review, they had to buy something, they're more trustworthy reviews."

Amazon may be working hard, but so are companies desperate for good reviews because those reviews are so crucial in a shopper's decision. Hancock says some business owners have taken to soliciting online to get good reviews.

"People that own say a restaurant or a product, or even doctors surprisingly enough," says Hancock, "will post ads on things like Craig's List saying we want you to write some fake reviews, here's some things we want you to say, and we'll pay you some small amount of money say a dollar up to ten. In fact, what we do whenever we see one of these ads is we try to save the screen shot because they typically don't stay up for very long. It is, in the U.S., illegal, so it is definitely on the underworld side.

Also in this program, a new tech vocabulary word: Likejacking. Facebook and the state of Washington are suing a company called Adscend, charging that the company is deceiving Facebook users by setting up phony links. The links have Facebook "Like" buttons hidden from view so that the user can then be used as a Facebook spam vehicle to all their Facebook friends. They are also routed to an advertising site. Good luck on Facebook! Don't get likejacked!

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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When was this piece recorded? Jeff Hancock refers to "a really important new feature" on Amazon that indicates whether someone has actually bought an item they are reviewing on the site. See more about it here:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/amazon-verified-purchase

This great "new" feature called Amazon Verified Purchase has been around at least a few years -- i.e. an eternity in internet years. John, considering your pedigree I'd think you'd know about this one...

This is why Airbnb is so excellent. You are only able to review a property if you have booked a reservation through airbnb and stayed at the property. It would be hard to game that system, allowing for lots of trust.

I reviewed a travel service provider on 'trip advisor' and was contacted by the provider who then threatened further hassels unless I retracted - which I did. The trip was enough of a problem. I did however copy trip advisor on all correspondence. Trip advisor did not follow their policy of red staring the provider. In fact the travel provider only has 5 * reports as reviews on Trip advisor.

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