Economy

Don't Be Fooled by Phony Online Product Reviews: How You Can Tell Fake from Real

Reviews are helpful if you know how to separate the good from the bad.

You’re buying a new camera or booking a motel. So you decide to check out online user reviews to find out what others are saying about the choice you’re considering. But how do you know whether you can trust what you read? Maybe those glowing reviews were posted by people who were paid or otherwise compensated by a manufacturer or service provider. Or perhaps the reviewers simply didn’t know enough about a product or service to provide an accurate evaluation.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission announced it reached a proposed settlement with a car shipping service it had accused of compensating customers for their reviews. The company “deceptively represented that its favorable reviews were based on the unbiased reviews of customers,” said an FTC statement. The case is the first FTC action of its kind, but it’s not the only example.

In December, the Italian agency that oversees business competition fined the travel website TripAdvisor the U.S. equivalent of more than $540,000 on charges that it misrepresented the authenticity of the reviews on its site and failed to take adequate steps to combat fake reviews. TripAdvisor said it would appeal the fine.

The New York State attorney general in 2013 reached a settlement with 19 companies accused of writing fake online reviews for their business clients on Yelp and other review websites. The attorney general said the companies, which were part of the reputation management industry, paid writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe $1 to $10 to pen the bogus reviews. In settling the cases against them, the companies agreed to pay more than $350,000 in penalties and discontinue their practices.

In a report on consumer reviews (pdf) issued last fall, researchers at the Harvard Business School and the Boston University School of Management estimated that up to 16 percent of restaurant user reviews on Yelp are fraudulent. They also found that independent restaurants with relatively few reviews or bad reviews are more likely to engage in review fraud than chain restaurants.

Concerns about such bias shouldn’t have you giving up on user reviews. But you need to know how to protect yourself and separate the good from the bad.

Find more than one source.When it comes to user reviews, you can reduce the risk of being misled by consulting more than one source. You’ll find reviews in many online locations, including user forums, on websites that evaluate products or services, such as the car site Edmunds.com, and even on manufacturer and retail sites.

One big resource is Amazon.com, where you’ll find reviews on pretty much everything. You might be surprised by the number of disparaging comments Amazon and other companies allow customers to post. Consider, for example, the overwhelmingly negative reviews Amazon customers gave one Bosch stackable clothes washer. One reviewer lamented: “I have been tremendously disappointed by Bosch, not only because my machine has stopped working, but because they do not honor their warranty, and their customer service reps do not seem like they care.”

Of course, if a site only has positive reviews, you should look elsewhere. It could be a sign that it’s blocking the negative comments.

To find reviews, use a web search with the type of product or service you’re considering and such terms as “reviews” and “complaints.” Try general terms, such as “tires” or “truck rentals,” and specific ones, like “Michelin Defender” or “U-Haul.”

Typically, you can read reviews for free. But there are exceptions, such as Angie’s List, which requires a paid membership for access to its customer evaluations of local service providers, such as home improvement contractors and car mechanics.

The more reviews you see on a site, the better. There’s a greater chance others will chime in if a reviewer either posts incorrect information or expresses an opinion that doesn’t reflect what most people think. Similarly, veterans who post a lot of reviews for many products or services are likely to be more trustworthy than newcomers who may have started posting only to promote a certain business or slam its competitors.

Look for balanced comments.Be suspicious of reviews that contain nothing but gushy praise, or at the other extreme, total condemnation of a product or service. It could be a sign the reviewer is being compensated by a company or its competitor or that the person has an axe to grind.

Even the best products and services have something that could be better. Maybe the replacement ink for that printer is a little too expensive, or the manufacturer’s technical support staff never answers the phone. Reviews that mention both the good and bad are less likely to have been written by shills. The Harvard and Boston University user review study found that fake reviews tend to be more extremely favorable or unfavorable than legitimate ones.

Find expertise.It’s often easy to spot reviews written by people who know a lot about a product or service. For instance, the reviewer may show technical knowledge. Maybe that new car’s steering feels vague and unresponsive or that refrigerator doesn’t meet Energy Star requirements. Or the reviewer may demonstrate knowledge of the industry. Maybe the person is a frequent traveler who provides details about how the hotel you’re considering stacks up against competitors.

It’s even better if a reviewer explains why he or she is so well versed in a subject. Maybe the person reviewing that iron reveals that she’s a hobbyist who makes a lot of clothes.

Look for verifiable information.Among the most useful reviews are those that provide facts or other details you can verify. For example, it’s easy to confirm that a bank charges extra for paper statements or that a laptop lacks a DVD drive, either of which might be important for you know but can easily be overlooked when doing research.

Consider professional reviews.Also read any professional reviews you can find. There are many free resources, such as CNET for tech products, and most recently, appliances; Edmunds.com for cars; TireRack.com for car tires; Digital Photography Review and Steve’s Digicams for cameras. Another resource is Consumer Reports, although generally you’ll have to pay to read its product ratings.

The advantage to professional reviews is that they’re often prepared by experts who have a lot of technical know-how, including an understanding of the industry standards for whatever they’re evaluating. Often they’re comparing a variety of products or services within a category, while general users may be familiar with only one or two.

On the other hand, user evaluations may provide insight into uses or features that professionals haven’t considered or don’t have time to explore. And as a product ages, users may be in a better position to evaluate its reliability than a professional, who may not have the item very long.

Ask questions.Some sites, including Amazon.com, let visitors post questions for of those who have written reviews. User forums are another resource for seeking additional information. For example, we found an iPhone user on one forum asking others for their opinion about the Nexus 6 Android phone. We found another person on a Toyota forum requesting users’ opinions about the 2015 Camry. User forums sometimes are frequented by professionals, such as appliance technicians or car mechanics, who can be especially helpful. 

Seek a consensus.Your goal should be to find agreement among reviewers, both professionals and non-professional users alike. Look for a product or service that most reviewers give an overall thumbs-up; forget the ones that receive a ton of negative comments.

Post your own reviews.If you’ve found a great or not-so-great product or service, go ahead and review it for the benefit of others. Be thorough and accurate, and be sure to point out both the good and the bad, so people will take you seriously.

Anthony Giorgianni is a longtime consumer and finance journalist. He spent nearly 10 years as a staffer on the Consumer Reports money team and more than a decade as the consumer affairs writer for Connecticut's Hartford Courant.

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