In Defense Of Online Reviews

The Daily Mail warns us: Don’t trust online reviews! A fifth are left by people who have NEVER tried the product.

In general, on topics far beyond this one, I’d warn against trusting The Daily Mail.

I do almost all of my shopping online as I simply do not have the time to go to stores, and rarely even make it out of the office before most stores are closed. Other than quickly running into a grocery store, I can’t recall the last time I was in a retail store. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I’ll even order items under $10 online, knowing that I will receive them in two days without any shipping costs. Amazon shows that I have placed 83 orders in the past six months, including orders for both home and office, but not including additional orders placed by others in my family.

Reviews are not needed for many items, but in other cases they are extremely valuable, especially when buying items which I have not seen. Sure, some are fake, but the article exaggerates the problem. The survey cited shows that over a fifth of responders have at some time reviewed an item they have not tried, not that a fifth of reviews posted are fake. Many are intentionally left as spoofs, and are easy to spot.

With a little common sense, it is not hard to go through the reviews and determine if they are worth considering. Many are a quick couple of sentences which may or may not provide useful information, but quite often there are reviews from users which are as detailed as a professionally published review. As they are reviews from someone actually using a product on a regular basis, as opposed to a brief time by a professional reviewer, they often do a better job of giving me the information I want to decide upon a purchase. Someone providing such detail is unlikely to be able to fake the review, and any attempts would be contradicted by other reviewers should they provide inaccurate information. In addition, reviews on sites such as Amazon often include updates as someone has used a product longer, and often include comments and questions to elaborate on the information. Having the reviews from many users provides further information, increasing the chances that the overall reviews are providing an accurate assessment. Plus I can quickly pull up additional reviews from additional sites, such as checking the comments on New Egg when buying electronics.

Amazon also indicates whether someone has actually purchased a product from them, and other sites do the same. Of course it is possible for someone to still write a good review if they purchased the product elsewhere. There are additional warning signs. I have sometimes seen products start out only receiving good reviews, often with similar comments. In such cases they are often followed by a comment from someone else pointing out that the reviewers do not have a history of leaving other reviews, raising suspicion. Unfortunately this also sometimes leads to arguments in comments with someone insisting their review is real and readers will have to decide for themselves whether to trust the review.

This doesn’t mean that there might not be problems with online reviews. Reports that many of the reviews on Yelp are fake is of greater concern as it wouldn’t be difficult to write a review which sounds legitimate for a restaurant which one has not actually gone to. Restaurant review sites also have the opportunity these days to provide some confirmation of legitimacy to their ads by having reviewers sign in at a restaurant on their cell phone to show they were there, even if the review is completed later.  Similarly, sites such as Trip Adviser might indicate whether a person had checked in at a hotel they review. Online reviews are a useful item on the internet, and technology can help make them more reliable.

Update: In the discussion of this post on Facebook, someone brought up reputation management firms which offer to scrub unfavorable reviews from the internet and write favorable ones. This could definitely throw off the value of online reviews, but not to the point where it would be necessary to stop using them.

These companies primarily “remove” unfavorable reviews by flooding the internet with favorable mention of a client so that these come up at the top of a Google search rather than unfavorable sites. This would not remove unfavorable reviews which someone writes at a site such as Amazon or Yelp. By working with information supplied by the company (and perhaps buying their own product) they could conceivalbly get away with posting favorable reviews listed as from verified purchasers with enough detail to sound real. This could tilt ratings, but if a product has problems which the planted reviews leave out, or if the planted review is unrealistically favorable, there could still be red flags when compared to other reviews from real users.

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