Can you trust online reviews?

The internet and the explosion of smartphones have made the opinions of anyone who gets online an indispensable part of almost every consumer decision. Whether you’re in the market for a new car, finding a decent coffee shop, or browsing Amazon or the aisle of a shop, there’s a good chance you’ll weigh the collective wisdom of the crowd.

Unfortunately, online reviews are so often a mess. They’re still the first stop for consumers looking to buy products, but also the scene of an ongoing battle between platforms, aggressive businesses, and angry or passive aggressive customers.

From mattress company Casper to online travel site TripAdvisor, plenty of companies have been found to be manipulating reviews. The result is an online review scene rife with conflicts of interest and shady practices. Casper has been suing people over reviews it claims are unfair. It even lent one site money to buy another before revising the review of its products to make it more positive, according to a report in Fast Company.

TripAdvisor has faced criticism in recent weeks over its deletion of accounts of sexual assault at various hotels. The company cited its policy on “family-friendly” language as its reason for the removal and swiftly apologised. It’s since rolled out a new tag to identify establishments where such incidents have occurred.

Fake reviews are the other big issue; the idea that either businesses themselves or their competitors might flood the system with fake testimonials. Seedy online firms have emerged with the sole intent of serving this purpose, though most big sites have been cracking down on them for years. In June, a BBC investigation suggested that at least 20 per cent of comments posted on review websites were fake.

The marketing director of an exclusive London restaurant has called for tighter controls of online reviews after revealing how scammers offer to create positive reviews for a small fee. James Lewis, of Gauthier Soho, was contacted by a fellow user of Yelp, who told him that customer reviews were vital for generating business. The fake reviewer, identified as Suhayal Malik, asked for £4 for a positive review that will “surely bring in more profits to your business”.

Mr Lewis said such people relied on receiving orders for around 50 reviews over a year, which would be posted from different profiles in a “massively complex system of accounts”. Yelp told Mr Lewis that it had passed the details of the scam to its investigations team.

The company revealed last year that it uses a review filter, which sifts through the more than 83 million reviews that have been submitted to the site in order to identify and recommend the most useful and reliable ones.

It also has a team dedicated to running sting operations, posing as review writers who are interested in selling reviews to whoever would like to buy them. When Yelp catches a business paying for fake reviews, it posts a very large prominent consumer alert on their business page, which lasts for three months.

Things to look for when considering if a reviewer is genuine or a fraud;

  • No review history, or newly created, anonymous accounts.
  • An all-negative or all-positive review with no caveats.
  • A review full of empty adjectives and either pure glowing praise or seemingly unsubstantiated anger.
  • Precise details and proper names of products and services.
  • A review history that consists entirely of overly negative or overly positive reviews – an indicator of a troll, someone who only reviews to vent, or employees or PR for a company or companies.

One thing to remember: Ignore outliers. If a review is overly glowing with nothing but great things to say, or overly negative with nothing but hate and vitriol, ignore both. You’re better off reading more calm and even-handed replies.

You can sometimes feel pressured into delivering a different review, bumping up the average so that a 4 out of 5 is suddenly no longer good enough, because “everyone else has given a five or a 1.” That’s nonsensical, of course; when we polarise our views, we dismiss the idea that middle-of-the-road reviews are equally as useful and should be encouraged; a 3 or 4, coupled with some explanation, can be very explanatory. We’re often driven to the edge by a sense of guilt that we should be more “decisive” – as if only the extremes are able to give you that decisiveness.

With Uber and Lyft, the review-inflating guilt factor is even more pronounced. Giving a four-star review (or worse) on Uber could literally cost a driver his livelihood, not just a little extra income. “I only give a 4-star review in extreme circumstances,” an Uber user called Alex said. “I’ve had terrible rides where the person got lost and cost me a lot of extra money due to incompetence. But if they’re nice about it, they get five stars.”

Rather invalidates the basis of honest reviews, doesn’t it? Don’t be afraid of giving your own truth, as long as it’s genuine and considered. Don’t be an idiot, but do be constructive.

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