Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Online Reviews - Can they be trusted?

In the Internet age people often turn to web for researching products and services. We turn to websites like Amazon for product reviews, Yelp for restaurant and other services reviews, or travel sites/blogs for trip reviews. Online reviews form an important input into our decision making for buying a product or service.

Since reviews can influence the sales of a product/service there is a big financial incentive for firms to keep them positive. Retailers/service providers realize the importance of reviews and dedicate resources to monitor them and even respond to them as appropriate particularly when its negative. Some firms have even resorted to dubious ways to create fake positive reviews.

Some of the techniques employed are paying people to write reviews using freelance services. In February of last year a home improvement company in Texas posted an online advertisement for “a writer who can write and post 25 positive reviews on 8 sites” that included Yelp, Google Places among others. Someone from Bangladesh won the contract for $100 and completed the job.

Then there is the case of a company encouraging its customers to write positive reviews by providing the product for free. New York Times reported that the company VIP Deals offered a leather case for Kindle Fire for $10 (official list price was $59.99) plus shipping. The deal got even sweeter when the product arrived, it came with a letter extending invitation to write a review on Amazon promising a refund of purchase price in exchange. The result was a near perfect rating consisting of more than 80% 5 STAR reviews and remaining 4 STAR reviews.

Fake reviews are a serious problem and companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor are taking steps to combat this as it raises the credibility of the core service itself and people may stop trusting their reviews. Yelp introduced the Review Filter to counter this. This kind of opinion spam is also being looked at by researchers from educational institutions like Cornell and University of Illinois at Chicago with funding from the industry.

Some of the simple tips to spot fake reviews include multiple reviews for one or several products of same company from the same person. The fake reviewers talk more about themselves than the actual product. Reviews are posted soon after the product launch and description will contain unusually large amount of praise sometimes irrelevant. The fake reviewers also aren’t usually long time members of a site.

Next time when you read an online review be aware that it could be fake.