Looking at other customer reviews before making a purchase seems like a great idea. For many, the comments have an enormous impact on that final decision. Companies know that, though, and some have taken to unsavory methods to inflate positive impressions of their products. The travel site TripAdvisor.com, for example, has been dogged for years by accusations of hotels using shills or their own employees to paint a far rosier picture of what a stay might be like. And a cosmetic surgery group was sued by New York's attorney general for paying employees to plant fake endorsements around the web — a practice known as "astroturfing."
The same thing could affect the sites that sell and accept reviews of cameras, TVs or laptops. What if they are filled with fakes?
Those seeking reviews want to know what they are reading is real and how to filter out the fakes so that they can use the information the way it was intended — to help you make a choice on what product to buy based on other user's experiences.
The ideal, of course, is that the verification is done for you. Amazon.com is a good example of a site that realizes the importance of consumers being able to trust the reviews. The company also screens comments for spam, links and other problems that have plagued other sites. It did not, however, respond to a request to discuss policing reviews.
Since it's nearly impossible to monitor millions of individuals' reviews, Amazon set up a system connected to purchases, which greatly inhibits the ability to simply invent a user name and type a review. The program, called Real Name, is what it seems — a reward for users for entering reviews using their real names. Those reviews are given more credibility because a person who is connected to a credit card number made a purchase on the site and is using their real name.
You don't, ultimately, have to use your real name for reviews. But the end-user can then filter out the reviews that don't have real names attached as a way of sorting through the dross and focus on those who take seriously the role they are playing in influencing other consumers. That doesn't mean the system is foolproof. There are people who spend their time figuring out how to beat every set-up.
So, here are some tips for reading reviews and avoiding the fakes:
- If you see a review you're interested in, check to see what other reviews that reviewer has posted. Beware if they've posted only on products of a certain company or multiple products in a line, such as four different laptops of the same brand.
- Be skeptical of overly glowing language, particularly when repeated in multiple reviews.
- Pay less attention to the best and worst reviews than those that are not at the extremes.
- Report reviews that you believe to be fake (sometimes it's pretty obvious) to help police the system.
- Watch out for reviews that try to defend problems cited in negative reviews.