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Can you really trust online customer reviews?

Molly Wood Jan 30, 2012

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!

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