Can You Trust Online Reviews of Products?

Online reviews have given us a unique window into what other people think about the product that transcends the boundaries of our own immediate surroundings. Before the Internet you would only know about a product through word of mouth or advertising. You can’t really conduct a proper survey on whether the product is right for you based on the opinions of a few trusted friends. You get a more accurate depiction from the project when looking at what hundreds of people have to say. That’s why online reviews are so amazing, although we take them for granted. But what if the person giving the review is actually trying to convince you subtly to buy it despite its shortcomings? Are online reviews truly more objective than your friends’ input?

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Despite attempts to quell fraudulent reviews, they will appear practically everywhere. The other day I was looking through reviews of 18650 batteries (those large lithium-ion ones found in various consumer electronics). One particular battery that caught my attention was an off-brand battery that didn’t have a single discharge test performed on it, but it had an uncanny amount of five-star reviews. They were all written in broken language. I immediately wrote them all off as fake after I discovered another website with a large amount of reviews that looked like they were written by people who actually used the battery. They didn’t have anything remarkably positive to say about it.

This is an experience a lot of people who frequently order online can relate to. To avoid fake reviews people often turn to stricter and more reputable sites like Yelp, which boasts the mantra “Real People. Real Reviews.” Despite having an algorithm that rapidly discards user submissions suspected of being fake, it seems to be having troubles of its own. The New York Attorney General’s office has recently fined a number of companies for paying freelancers to write fake reviews on Yelp. There are reviews that slip through, which spells trouble for people looking for objective opinions.

Not all fake reviews are trying to portray a false image of a product, though. Some of them, like the reviews for this horse head mask on Amazon, are done completely for the purpose of giving people a good chuckle or two. Amazon noticed the phenomenon and has even featured a few products for their funniest reviews.

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There are three primary reasons why someone would write a fraudulent review: to give the impression that a product works better than it really does, to give the impression that the product is worse than it really is (attempting to slander competition), or to be a “class clown” (as is the case with some Amazon reviews). The first two categories are the most harmful with the last one being a product of “web culture.”

Sometimes people may post a fake review about a product because they want to imbibe in the experience of having used it without purchasing it (it’s a psychological thing). However, these reviews are rare.

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When you want to find out if you should really consider purchasing a product on the Internet, read the reviews first! Don’t just buy it because five pretty stars appear next to its name. For all you know all of the reviews about it were fake! While you’re reading, keep an eye out for these things:

  • Consistently broken language on a product available only where a large fluent-speaking majority is expected (i.e. an unnaturally large amount of broken Romanian speakers on a Romanian website);
  • Everything said about the product is very positive, but no technical details are given;
  • The “pros” and “cons” lists consistently show only “pros” but no “cons” or the reverse;
  • Very strong emotional words but no real constructive context brought to the table; and/or
  • The reviewers use nicknames instead of their real name (on Yelp).

A review can have any of these and still be real, so use your best judgment to ensure that what you are reading comes from a person who really used the product. Keep in mind that a lot of fraudulent reviewers are freelancers who are paid pennies on the dollar (usually $1 a pop) to write a review. They won’t put much effort into it. So let’s try to construct two examples of reviews (a fraudulent one and then a real one) about a pair of headphones.

This is what a fraudulent one may look like:

@ndak105: Wow! I just bought this pair of headphones and listen to some music. Sound quality excellent! Nothing can match it!

A real one would look more like this:

@craig77: I bought these headphones about a week ago and have since been listening to music and watching films on and off with them. You won’t easily find a pair of headphones with this kind of noise cancellation at this price. There is a barely noticeable, but audible, buzz that comes from the left ear. You won’t hear it while listening to something, but you may be bothered by it if you’re having a “quiet period.” I’d certainly buy them again, given the opportunity.

That last user seems to have actually used the headphones. The review is more likely to be real.

As anyone who is very “in tune” with the ebb and flow of the Internet can tell you, it’s about as great a place to get information as it is to get manipulated and deceived. In a way that’s no different than participating in “real life” society or watching television. However, people who are quick to trust the written word are often more vulnerable to falling victim to the Web’s darker side.

How do you see us approaching the problem of filtering out all the fraud? Tell us in a comment!

7 comments

  1. Reviews can be faked but can also misleading when written by total noobs. Take for example the Android app Clean Master, which has millions of 5 star reviews but is actually a fake app that does nothing but misleading people with animations about fake results… IObit System care is also using impressive but fake animations, but at least it also does ‘something’ although not what it pretends to do…

  2. Added, just found on Quora:

    ‘Clean Master is the best example of placebo effect in the Android platform. As others have pointed out in their answers, this app doesn’t increase performance of your android phone in any way!

    What it does do well, making you feel good through its UI, where you are given the experience of your phone speeding up (in illustrations and animation effects alone), which is more than enough for many.

    I had a suspicion about this when I was actually using the app and so tested it out. I had the android settings panel and this app open at the same time. I tapped on clean junk files.

    Once the animation was complete, the app informed that 362 mb has been removed. However, on the panel, as well as one the file manager, I couldn’t see any difference compared to before. Same thing for the ram as well. That is the day I uninstalled this app.

    Whatever feeling of speed increase you get from this app is purely imaginary.’

    So what is the value of a review then, really zero!

  3. You did not mention the companies, such as the hotel industry in the US, that strongly discourage negative reviews. Some of the chains went as far as charging the credit cards of the negative posters a night’s stay in retaliation or as punishment. Couple of chains also sued the negative posters for defamation.

  4. Everything in moderation and reviews are no different. Generally I only shop at reputable shops that while they encourage reviews they also monitor and do everything in their power to ensure it is an honest one and they don’t remove a review unless it has so much profanity in it that blacking out the word makes the review unreadable.

    There is deception everywhere and like the number of unscrupulous businesses there is an equal percentage of morons that no matter how many times we try and warn them, they will still revel in reviews that any educated person will see is a fake. Like with Craig78 and not saying those that buy Clean Master are morons but truly this tool markets to the less savvy user that has no real technical knowledge. So likewise the reviews while they may be fake, there are also those that think this software actually performs some miracle. Which those of us who work on computers for a living and even those tech savvy know is a total bold face lie.

    I too have heard about this crap the hotel industry has done and it is sad that they would even consider doing this. Hopefully those that stoop to this practice are caught and pay the fine for their less than stellar business practice and clean up the nasty worthless hotel.

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