Whether they're looking for a good restaurant or researching the best headphones, many people turn to online reviews. Trust in the masses is the mantra, and the average star rating can make or break a business.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that companies pay for reviews, give away products in exchange for reviews, or offer rebates for posting reviews -- often with a strong suggestion to leave a positive rating. Phony reviews can also be used to badmouth competitors or disliked employers.
This poses a problem for ecommerce sites and consumers. Shoppers may make regrettable purchase decisions based on fake reviews. The reputations of retailers such as Amazon and review-centric businesses such as TripAdvisor and Yelp are tied to the validity of the posted reviews. Amazon had to sue several alleged sellers of reviews not long ago, saying they were undermining consumer trust and tarnishing the Amazon brand.
Many large websites work hard to detect fake reviews by tracking the computers where the reviews originate, searching for discernible patterns (e.g., a single reviewer giving multiple products very low or high scores), and flagging products that garner many reviews as soon as they're listed. Some use algorithms to automatically filter out reviews they consider suspicious, based on analysis of fake reviews by researchers such as Bing Liu, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Regardless what vendors do, their attempts to root out inauthentic and useless reviews are hardly foolproof. Consumers must be alert to the scams, as well. Use the following tips and telltale signs to help identify and avoid misinformation.
A review is about the reviewer.
Genuine reviewers have used a product or visited a place before reviewing it. They tend to write about what a room looked like, how the product felt, or how large or small something was. Paid reviewers tend to focus on their own "experience," why they went somewhere or bought something, or about the people who accompanied them.
A review summarizes the product's specs.
If a review of a physical product does little more than list product features or specifications, without sharing any impressions of the product's performance, it is likely fake.
A review doesn't back up its claim.
When a review simply says a product or service is "great" or "terrible" without backing up the assertion with evidence, it may be fabricated. Even if that's not the case, potential buyers learn little from such online posts.
The language is awkward.
Poorly formed sentences and odd-sounding phrases might be an indication that the review was bought from a writer working abroad. This isn't a steadfast rule, as there are, of course, plenty of non-native English speakers who buy and review products and services, especially travel-related. But bad syntax can be a hint to dig further and maybe check the reviewer's profile.
A reviewer's profile is suspicious.
Reviews are sometimes bought in batches, and you may be able to tell if that's the case by checking reviewers' profiles. Have they reviewed many similar products in a short period? It's unlikely that the average person would buy five computer monitors, for example. Similarly, have they posted multiple reviews for products from the same company or brand? Do they always seem to give very high or low marks? If "yes" to any of these questions, beware.
Dozens of reviews were posted within days.
A former paid reviewer writes on Money Talks News that often she'd be given a 48-hour deadline to write a review. The company that hired her sent the same assignment to several other writers and, as a result, a sudden rush of 10 to 50 reviews would appear. Check the dates and times of reviews for suspicious clusters.
A review stands out from the crowd.
If there are generally negative or positive reviews and one on the opposite end of the spectrum, read it warily. Maybe the person is having a really good or bad day, but regardless, it's best to ignore such outliers.
Product names are too specific.
How product names can be a tip-off. The reviewer may use the full-blown product name, complete with model number, throughout the review, while most people just reference the product type or shorten the name. Alternatively, the reviewer might leave a negative review but mention a competitor's product by name and brand.
A review was copied and pasted elsewhere.
A sure sign that a review is fake is that it has been used several times with only a few words changed. If a review looks suspicious, select a sentence and run it through a search engine. If the same review appears on a separate site and was posted by someone with a different username, that's a red flag.
Try an online tool.
As fake online reviews become a problem for the web, the web looks for ways to beat them. The makers of Fakespot say they use proprietary technology to analyze millions of reviews and look for suspicious patterns. Users just paste in a product URL from Amazon, Yelp, or Apple's App Store and get back a letter grade of authenticity and review-reading tips.
A link is slipped in.
Sometimes people take advantage of the fact that their reviews will be seen by many shoppers. They may post a semi-relevant sentence or two followed by a link to a similar product they are selling or to an entirely unrelated website. If a discount code is also included, the reviewer likely gets some sort of compensation when someone buys using that code.
A review is completely one-sided.
Even consumers who really like or dislike something often list a few pros and cons. Reviews that are overly positive or negative may be phony.
The star rating doesn't match the text.
Glancing past the average star rating that a property, product, or experience gets and reading the reviews can be important. That's not to say someone should read all 15,000 reviews of a famous hotel or restaurant, but when there are just a few reviews, each one can change the average rating drastically Even if the review isn't fake, sometimes commenters do not match the number of stars to their experience -- giving 4 or 5 stars, say, but writing that they were not impressed with the service.
Authenticity is not the end-all.
Even if reviews are based on personal experience, some should still be ignored. Consider who have stayed at a budget motel. Ideally they will compare it with similar motels. But if they were expecting a Four Seasons, their assessments will be skewed. Perhaps the travel agent or the motel's marketing could be critiqued, but a budget motel is not a luxury hotel and should not be rated on that basis.
Seek out independent reviews.
If all else fails, try to find in-depth reviews from a third-party publisher, such as CNET, Consumer Reports, The Wirecutter, or Cheapism. Also check to see if the product manufacturer is represented elsewhere online. The New York Times highlighted one business buying reviews on Amazon that had no website and was registered to a mailbox in a Los Angeles suburb.