How reliable are online reviews of products? This is a question people should be asking after it was learned this week that the Samsung Group was fined $340,000 by the Taiwanese Fair Trade Commission (FTC) for posting fake comments, favorable to Samsung and unfavorable to its competitors on various websites. This is the second time this year the Samsung Group has been caught. Samsung is not the first company to be accused of doing this and more than likely will not be the last. Several online review sites such as Yelp, Google and Trip Advisor have been accused of this as well.
How can you determine if a review is real or fake? How can you tell if the person writing the review is a competitor of the company being reviewed, an employee of the company being reviewed or just someone with an axe to grind?
The simple answer is not to trust any of them, but that is being disingenuous to those people out there who are really trying to be helpful. Another answer would be to develop an algorithm, as some researchers at Cornell University did, then run the reviews through your computer to see if the review is real or not. Or you could settle for something in between.
The first thing one must realize is there are companies out there who will pay for reviews and there are people out there who are willing to write them. Yes, it can be against the law in some places and it certainly is not ethical, but it does happen. Go to any freelancing website or a place like Craigslist and you can find job offers.
Remember that old adage “If it seems too good to be true it probably is?” You can apply this to website reviews as well. When you read a review, whether it is for a product from Samsung or anyone else, restaurant or other business, if it is just way too positive, it might be a fake. Think about normal people and what would they say, most people will not be overly glowing when they like something; the same if it is too negative, they will not be too negative. The Cornell researchers found that if a review was fake, the writer used a lot more superlatives like “fantastic”, “awesome” and “the best I ever…” than did real people. They also noticed the fake reviews contained a lot of “I’s” and “me’s” whereas the real ones did not.
Fake reviews also tend to be too descriptive while at the same time being vague with the descriptions. What this means is they will hype the product or business but since they may have never used the product or been to the business being reviewed, they will use more general descriptions which can be found from published sources, like the company’s website. Fake reviews tend to use formal descriptions, like model numbers and technical terms, again normally gained from other published sources. If the reviewer has actually used the product they will more than likely not use such descriptions, instead it will be more “hands-on.” For example “This Hoover SS-325 provides exceptional power for its price,” is probably fake where as something like “This vacuum really sucked,” is more than likely real. Fake reviews also tend to suffer from “TMI” (too much information). Things like the reason the reviewer was in town and staying at a particular place would be an example. Real reviewers normally will not give all that information, instead getting right to the facts. People who are paid to write reviews are usually required to write a set amount of words leading to this “fluff.”
Another piece of advice would be to read all the reviews, or at least a majority of them, and use an average. If you see nothing but five star reviews you might want to question the veracity of these. Either the bad ones have been filtered out or the site has been peppered with good reviews. While it is possible something is so good it gets nothing but great reviews, more than likely they will have at least one bad one. The converse is also true, if the site is full of bad reviews this could mean someone has an axe to grind. Or, as in the case of what Yelp has been accused of, they hold back the good reviews and try to get the business to advertise with them before they release them. You should also check the dates of the reviews, if they are all the same date or really close to each other, they probably have been “stuffed.” Looking at more than just a few reviews can also tell you if someone, like a server or hotel clerk was just having a bad day. If the comments are consistent, ranting about this or that server, or raving about this or that clerk, chances are they really are that way. If there is only one bad comment, then it might just be someone having a bad day. It is also a good idea to check for patterns. If there are a lot of bad comments, go back to see if they used to be good and if different try to find out why.
If you really want to do your homework before relying on reviews, you can try to determine if the person is real or not. Granted, many people will not use their real names, but that in itself might be a tip off. After all if you really liked a product or place wouldn’t you want everyone to know it? Same with when something is really bad. Some sites let the user put a picture on their profile, if there is one, chances are the reviewer and the review are both real. Of course, if you see the same picture associated with several different names, well, you figure it out. Some sites such as Amazon and Samsung let you cross reference reviewers to see if they are actually customers of the site, if they are a customer the review is more than likely real. They will also allow you to look at the users other reviews as well.
Finally beware of any company that promises something in return for a good review. Some companies may offer a discount for a later purchase or return visit, linking these offers with obtaining a good review, this should be a warning sign. Again, as with everything else in this article, there are companies who legitimately want feedback, but if they have to pay for it, especially when they will only pay for a good review, can the product or service really be that good to begin with? No matter how cynical many of us have become, people will still rave about something they like and rant about something they do not.
There is no way to ever be 100 percent sure if a review is real or not. You should read them, but remember there are fakes out there. Read enough of them and you’ll get a feel for which is which, and use them at your own risk.
Written by Paul Roy