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Fact Or Fake: Trusting Online Reviews Can Be Tricky

Upon its recent release, BlackBerry’s BBM app was downloaded 10 million times within 24 hours, but at least on Android, some of its many positive reviews seem to come from a less than savory source.  Writer Matt Baxter-Reynolds has noted that a huge number of reviews contained the exact same praise for BBM.  A BlackBerry spokeswoman responded, saying the company had nothing to do with it. “We have recently been made aware of a number of potentially fake five-star reviews of BBM for Android on Google Play,” she said. “We do not approve of or condone such activities and are committed to working with Google to resolve this.”  Unfortunately for BlackBerry, the reviews cast some doubt on the 10 million download number it touted. There’s no reason to believe BlackBerry’s count isn’t correct, but astroturfed comments could also mean not everyone downloading the app is a fan of BBM.

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant.  Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source’s financial connection. The term astroturfing is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass. On the Internet, astroturfers use software to mask their identity. Sometimes one individual operates over many personas to give the impression of widespread support for their client’s agenda.

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.

Fraudulent reviews are growing as more businesses become aware of the importance of social media and compete with rivals for public affection.  Consumers can be influenced to see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Of the top reviews on Amazon analyzed in a 2011 study by technology entrepreneur Filip Keeler and Trevor Pinch, a professor at Cornell University’s department of science and technology studies, over 80% were positive. The study, “Free Lunch,” concluded that 85% of the most prolific reviewers are part of “Amazon Vine”, the site’s “most trusted” reviewers, and received free products from publishers, agents and manufacturers. This, Kessler says, can make them unpaid agents rather than consumer advocates. “Consumers should not rely solely on Amazon reviews,” he says.  Recently a Harvard Business School study confirmed something long known: businesses that don’t have a good reputation online will try to create one by submitting phony reviews to web sites.

Eric Schneiderman, Attorney General of New York, has announced agreements with 19 firms that commissioned fake reviews and several reputation-enhancement companies that helped place reviews on sites like Citysearch, Google, Yahoo and Yelp. They were fined a total of $350,000.  As part of a year-long investigation, dubbed Operation Clean Turf, officials posed as the owners of a Brooklyn yoghurt shop that had garnered negative reviews online. Fake reviews, written in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe, were commissioned from reputation management firms for as little as a dollar a piece. The investigation found reputation companies even wrote fake reviews of their own businesses denying that they wrote fake reviews.

Agreements were reached with a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Schneiderman’s office found evidence that dentists, lawyers and an ultra-sound clinic had all commissioned fake reviews.   According to Scheiderman Edward Telmany, US Coachways’s chief executive, wrote to staff in 2011 warning them that online criticism was hurting their business. “We get bashed online,” Telmany wrote. “We are loosing [sic] money from this.” Telmany told his employees to write favorable reviews and posted a five-star review himself on Yelp that began: “US Coachways does a great job!” He commissioned freelance writers to write other positive reviews. The company agreed to pay $75,000 in fines and stop writing fake reviews.

A Harvard Business School Study from 2011 found that 90% of consumers say that online reviews influence their buying decisions and estimated that a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenues for a restaurant.  In terms of trustworthiness, word-of-mouth from family and friends still trumps online reviews, but the latter is playing catch-up. Only 79% of people say they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, up from 72% last year, according to the 2013 “Local Consumer Review Survey” by e-commerce company BrightLocal.

How can a user determine if a review is real or fake? How can consumers 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 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.  Remember the saying, “If it seems too good to be true it probably is?”  This old adage can apply to website reviews as well.  If a review, whether it is for a product from Samsung or anyone else, restaurant or other business, is just way too positive, it might be a fake.  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.  Read all the reviews, or at least a majority of them, and use an average.  If nothing but five star reviews are offered, 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.

Another well-worn adage, “Consumer beware”, should be applied to all information offered up as testimonials to a marketer’s products and services.  All the algorithms and evaluation software cannot protect consumers as efficiently or effectively as savvy consumers look out for themselves.

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