11 tips to avoid fake online reviews
Fake product reviews are more common than you might think, and even big-name companies sometimes get caught using them.
People often look at product reviews when deciding whether to make a purchase or choosing between brands. It's not that they necessarily care what a stranger thinks. Rather, a batch of reviews can offer an idea of common problems or complaints and sometimes suggest better alternatives.
The problem is fake reviews. Yes, there are people who actually spend time doing that. They often get paid to do it, either by the company they work for -- often as PR interns -- or through sites like Mechanical Turk, where anyone can be paid trivial sums (as little as 20 cents) to write product reviews and do other menial tasks by companies that don't want to actually hire someone to do them.
Even big-name companies do this. Technology company Belkin was caught for fake reviews in 2009. Another company called DeLonghi was spotted with fakes after that. And here's another story from last year about a settlement over fake reviews after a PR firm was charged by the Federal Trade Commission -- and received a slap on the wrist.
What can you do to avoid being conned by fake reviews? Here are some ideas:
- Ignore reviews that focus on features rather than reliability, sturdy construction, and value. They'll often sound like a list off the side of the product box itself: "I love this thing! It has 12 gizmos, over 40 different customizable settings, unique aerodynamic design with swivel head, and comes in over 15 colors!" Obviously fake.
- Be skeptical of totally positive reviews. While there are hardcore fans of certain products, most of us don't have an incentive to write glowing reviews just because a product does what we expected (and paid for) it to do. Rather, people usually write reviews to vent their frustration with a company, warn people against problems, or assess pros and cons.
- Ignore reviews full of empty, meaningless adjectives and buzzwords. Saying a product is "great" or "excellent" or "amazing" means nothing on its own, even if it's in all caps and accompanied by a dozen exclamation points. They should explain why they think it's great. This is the most common kind of fake review, because it takes almost no time or effort to write.
- Watch out for super-negative reviews too. In addition to praising their own products, fakers will also knock competitors' stuff. Simple claims of "this doesn't work," "this sucks," or "beware!!!!" are just as empty as the adjectives above.
- Skip over flowery language. Reviews that sound like bad novels are often written by fake reviewers. Some people do tell "stories" -- stuff like, "Well, I bought this for my wife's birthday and when we opened it we found out it sucked," is usually OK as long as it's to the point and sounds contextual or humanizing, rather than robotic.
- Other stories to watch out for: illogical and improbable ones. An example would be reviews that say they thought the product looked terrible but they bought it anyway and, it turns out, they loved it. Would you buy something you were biased against from the start?
- If a review sounds suspicious, see if the person has done other reviews. If they seem to always give completely negative or positive reviews, or say the same thing over and over, don't trust 'em. If a name or phrase sounds suspicious, paste it into Google or Bing and see if it's a cookie-cutter review.
- Be skeptical of several reviews posted around the same time, within a few hours or a day of each other. They were probably posted by a group, or told to post by the same source. One exception: If the reviews were posted near the product release date.
- Check the names of reviewers on similar products. The same reviewers will sometimes review several different products from the same brand or of the same kind. Unless they identify themselves as a professional reviewer or explain why they buy so many different versions of the same thing, they're probably bogus. Sometimes you'll see lots of variations of the same username too.
- Watch out for reviews that repeat the product name over and over, especially if it has a long title like the "Smith and Johnson Double Plus Platinum Thinger WD-2000," which real users will probably just call "the Thinger." Repetition can indicate a lame attempt to improve search engine results.
- Reviews that go off-topic and provide a link. These aren't review-fakers, they're another type of lowlife whose goal is to hijack Web traffic.
In sum: Look for ratings a couple notches below perfect, with details that don't sound like copy-paste work. Pay attention to reviewer names and their history, and do a search on anything suspicious. Follow that advice, and you'll have a good idea about which ones you can trust.
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