Why You Shouldn’t Trust Positive Online Reviews—Or Negative Ones, For That Matter

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Researchers and online review sites alike are trying to root out efforts to manipulate the system. By outing dubious, planted, solicited, and otherwise inauthentic reviews, consumers will have more reason to trust the reviews that remain, the thinking goes. But judging on how prevalent the manipulation seems to be, it’s arguable that online user ratings and reviews are less trustworthy than ever.

Over the weekend, a New York Times story about online reviews focused on the experiences of Todd Rutherford, who has this to say about the world of online reviews:

“When there are 20 positive and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,” he said. “I’m jaded.”

Rutherford should know: He spent years writing and commissioning others to write thousands of what he calls ““artificially embellished reviews” of books. Often, the book “reviews” required little more than a 10- or 15-minute literal “review” of the book in order to produce 300 words of glowing, somewhat relevant and customized praise. Before Google suspended his ad account due to his pay-for-positive-reviews business, Rutherford was pulling in as much as $28,000 per month. One author admitted to paying $20,000 over the years to various services so that they would review his books.

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The expose on fake book reviews is the latest example of why you shouldn’t trust online reviews. Or at the very least, you should review the reviews with an especially skeptical eye.

Another example comes from a recent post at Automotive News, which relates that Google is suddenly and without warning deleting dozens, sometimes hundreds of reviews of car dealerships at Google+ Local. Google isn’t explaining why, exactly, reviews are disappearing. But it did release a boilerplate statement noting that “these measures help everyone by ensuring that the reviews appearing on Google+ Local are authentic, relevant, and useful,” giving the indication that there was reason to believe the reviews were fake or somehow inauthentic.

The dealerships maintained that the deleted ones “are legitimate, obtained by requests over several months to sales and service customers,” according to Automotive News. But some would question the authenticity of reviews that come as the result of the pleas of the businesses being reviewed. Review giant Yelp actively discourages review requests by businesses because it taints the objectivity of reviews. What business, after all, would ask a displeased customer to offer his honest thoughts, feedback, and gripes in an online review? “Self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing,” Yelp explains, “a bias that savvy consumers (read: yelpers) can smell from a mile away.”

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Yelp tries to filter such reviews out of its ratings, and apparently so does Google+ Local. As a result, one auto dealership saw its number of reviews drop from 300 to just 11, and the reviews that were left were mostly negative. Before the mass deletion, the dealership had a rating of 29 out of 30 points; afterward, the rating was in the single digits.

Which rating is more accurate—the one before or after Google got rid of hundreds of reviews? It’s hard to say. Google and Yelp admit that their systems sometimes wind up flagging perfectly legitimate reviews. But that’s better than leaving up reviews that are very likely bogus, they claim.

Bear in mind that it’s not just positive reviews that are sometimes fake. After examining half a million online hotel reviews, a new study highlighted by the Talking Travel Tech blog comes to the conclusion that small, indie hotels are likely faking reviews. They’re not only generating fake positive reviews for their businesses, but they’re also producing fake negative reviews for nearby chain hotel competitors.

(MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews)

How do the researchers reach these conclusions? They compared reviews at TripAdvisor with those from Expedia. The big difference with reviews from these sites is that at Expedia, it’s necessary to have stayed in a hotel—and booked it through Expedia for proof—to write a review of it. TripAdvisor reviews are under no such obligation, and as a result, anyone can pen a review of a hotel, even someone who has never been a guest of the property.

Previously, other researchers have concluded that it’s sites like TripAdvisor, where no proof of customerhood is required for reviews, have the highest prevalence of fake reviews. The latest study backs up this theory by focusing on small mom-and-pop hotels—properties that stand the most to benefit from the reviews system because, unlike chain hotels, they have no national reputation to lean on.

The study shows that small hotels are “about 10% more likely to receive five-star reviews on TripAdvisor than they are on Expedia, relative to hotels owned by large corporations.” What’s more, researchers say that when a better-known hotel brand is located near an indie hotel, the chain hotel is more likely than one of its isolated sister hotels to get one- and two-star ratings at TripAdvisor. Overall, it’s estimated that a chain hotel down the block from an indie hotel will get hit with five more fake negative reviews than the same brand hotel that isn’t directly competing with a small, independently run hotel.

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The researchers found that there was “relatively more positive manipulation than negative manipulation, even though the order of magnitude of the two is similar.” The big takeaway is that the system is being manipulated with fake positive and fake negative reviews—and that’s all negative for consumers who are using them to try and make smart choices.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

42 comments
ReferDigital
ReferDigital

123ORM.com's free online reputation management is a great way for businesses to get better online reviews by encouraging their happy customers to review them, and their unhappy customers to vent their frustrations privately instead.

Sargio Bee
Sargio Bee

Are you kidding me? Yelp's take on fake reviews? They don't get any faker than having to pay for positive or else get all negative, i.e. Yelp.  You can ask for all the positive reviews you want, but unless you pay Yelp you'll never see any, legitimate or not...

arthurcooper
arthurcooper

This is a good article but it really doesn't offer solutions.  Its the same old message ... beware ... danger, Will Robinson.  I think you have to be smarter than that.  There are ways of telling artificial reviews from real ones.  If people simply not rely on one review but rather to view the totality of the reviews, the timing and the diversity of the reviews.  Diversity of source, style, dates and time of the posts are all factors.  Its also a great opportunity to see how the company responds to any negative posts as that will say as much as anything else.  Do they seek solutions or confrontation?  Reviews are part of the assessment process just like everything else that you assess; an entertainer, a broadway play, the news, etc.  You have to see the forest and not get sidetracked by suspicious trees that are inevitable.  Its called life!

Melissa Watten Gish
Melissa Watten Gish

It's true that a business owner would not ask a displeased customer to write a review online, but in my experience as a business owner, dissatisfied customers are way more likely to take the time to write a review online. If a customer is pleased with the services they received they may say thank you but often don't take the time to post a review unless asked , but a customer who is dissatisfied--and often these people are unreasonable to begin with, will try to hurt the business with negative reviews. That skews the results more than anything. Yelp and others should take this into account. 

Vicki Logan
Vicki Logan

I totally agree with this article.  As a musician, I know what it means to "advertise and market" and this is a practice I have found to be well known.  I do not practice this type of "review" nor do I condone it.  This is also why I take responsibility for any review or comment I make by putting my name on it.  I NEVER believe a review or comment if it was given annonymously or if it is a "funky user ID".  It is my opinion that it is cowardly and shows that the person writing it is not serious about the review or comment.  I also realize that it can be dangerous at times to sign using a real name.  If I feel threatened or feel like putting my name out there might cause issues for my family, maybe I should keep my opinion to myself this time...

Naked Garcia
Naked Garcia

I just wrote an in depth review about my time working for a South Beach Boutique hotel that actively participates in these activity's, with full descriptions of how they do it, and this guy won't approve my post. Sorry guys, I guess the moderator here doesn't like it when people upstage his (limited) research.

Naked Garcia
Naked Garcia

 I think I'm going to have to chime in on this one.

As a web

developer who worked in Miami Beach hospitality while putting myself

through collage, I can tell you for a definite fact that small, boutique

hotels are without a doubt astroturfing their reviews on "proof not

required" sites (mostly TripAdvisor).

How do I know? Cause I helped them do it (don't judge me, I was young and I needed the money :)

I can give you one the the most flagrant examples that is still in effect.

There

is a small crumbling little hotel in South Beach Miami call The

Angler's Boutique Resort that actively and flagrantly condones the the

mass production of falsified reviews. These guys got it down to a

science (they did such a damn good job astroturfing TripAdvisor that

they remained on the NUMBER ONE position for the entire two years I was

employed there. (hell, last time i checked they were STILL number one)

Think

about that, an old ass crumbling hotel in the worse part of south beach

(right across the street from a half dozen sleezy hip hop clubs, where

shootings and violence are commonplace) somehow maintains a higher

rating then the deleno, the bently, the tides, the satai, the hilton

ect.

How do they do it? A combination of selective reviews (ask how

was their stay, if they're super happy, give em' a TripAdvisor card and

ask for review. If they're pissed, screw em') and good old fashion

cheating.

They actively encourage employees to write false reviews and offer incentives to have friends and family post false reviews.

The whole thing was the brain child of some Sleaze Merchant named Ricardo something ( he was the revenue manager at the time).

So if there is any take away it's this.. ANY review that does not require PROOF OF PURCHASE is total garbage.

Amazon

reviews are so successful because they have a verification system. If

you look on the corner of each review there is a little tag that say

"purchase verified" and of course those reviews are deemed most

creditable.

Naked Garcia
Naked Garcia

I just spent all that time contributing to your blog, you better approve that.

Naked Garcia
Naked Garcia

I think I'm going to have to chime in on this one.

As a web developer who worked in Miami Beach hospitality while putting myself through collage, I can tell you for a definite fact that small, boutique hotels are without a doubt astroturfing their reviews on "proof not required" sites (mostly TripAdvisor).

How do I know? Cause I helped them do it (don't judge me, I was young and I needed the money :)

I can give you one the the most flagrant examples that is still in effect.

There is a small crumbling little hotel in South Beach Miami call The Angler's Boutique Resort that actively and flagrantly condones the the mass production of falsified reviews. These guys got it down to a science (they did such a damn good job astroturfing TripAdvisor that they remained on the NUMBER ONE position for the entire two years I was employed there. (hell, last time i checked they were STILL number one)

Think about that, an old ass crumbling hotel in the worse part of south beach (right across the street from a half dozen sleezy hip hop clubs, where shootings and violence are commonplace) somehow maintains a higher rating then the deleno, the bently, the tides, the satai, the hilton ect.

How do they do it? A combination of selective reviews (ask how was their stay, if they're super happy, give em' a TripAdvisor card and ask for review. If they're pissed, screw em') and good old fashion cheating.

They actively encourage employees to write false reviews and offer incentives to have friends and family post false reviews.

The whole thing was the brain child of some Sleaze Merchant named Ricardo something ( he was the revenue manager at the time).

So if there is any take away it's this.. ANY review that does not require PROOF OF PURCHASE is total garbage.

Amazon reviews are so successful because they have a verification system. If you look on the corner of each review there is a little tag that say "purchase verified" and of course those reviews are deemed most creditable.

ThomasSanDiego
ThomasSanDiego

It is not that hard to identify a fake review.  And I stay away from any business that has to have fake reviews to build itself up.

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

You know, Time, I wish you'd tell readers you're going to review (censor) comments critical to you or your "journalism" before they take the time to write them or we wouldn't waste our time. I'm off to read Pravda now. Maybe I'll have better luck with them.

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

"Researchers and online review sites alike are trying to root out efforts to manipulate the system. By outing dubious, planted, solicited, and otherwise inauthentic reviews, consumers will have more reason to trust the reviews that remain, the thinking goes."

Now where is your cite for that? The biggest online review site is Amazon, and they've changed their reviewer system so that reviewers are ranked now by the number of positive votes they get (which, naturally, are seen as spurring readers to buy the product, adding to Amazon's bottom line) and not by the number of reviews or breadth of the reviews. Amazon has consistently declined to comment on this change in reviewer rankings, but it has been documented many times that reviewers who get the most positive feedback for products are gifted with freebees from manufacturers. So there's a lot of evidence right there that the number one retailer is interested in goosing sales with positive reviews, and not with rooting out reviews that manipulate. 

You could try a little harder with your article. Or are you too paid by your bosses for only writing laudatory articles?

RobM9
RobM9

The fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of these sites.

 There needs to be some layer of accountability for reviews to be trusted.

 There is also a motivation problem... some people who post on Yelp (when

not fake) often do so out of some recent experience that compels them to tell

the world about it.  This is usually "loved it" or "hated

it".  Tout'd (www.toutd.com)

provides for social accountability as you only get reviews from friends or

friends of friends.   You also get recommendations that are in response to

a friend's request for a recommendation.  The motivation for posting a

review on Tout'd is to help.  This makes reviews more valuable,

trustworthy, and actionable.  Check it out... tell me what you think about

it.

RobM9
RobM9

The fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of these sites.

 There needs to be some layer of accountability for reviews to be trusted.

 There is also a motivation problem... some people who post on Yelp (when

not fake) often do so out of some recent experience that compels them to tell

the world about it.  This is usually "loved it" or "hated

it".  Tout'd (www.toutd.com)

provides for social accountability as you only get reviews from friends or

friends of friends.   You also get recommendations that are in response to

a friend's request for a recommendation.  The motivation for posting a

review on Tout'd is to help.  This makes reviews more valuable,

trustworthy, and actionable.  Check it out... tell me what you think about

it.

RobM9
RobM9

The

fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of these sites.

 There needs to be some layer of accountability for reviews to be trusted.

 There is also a motivation problem... some people who post on Yelp (when

not fake) often do so out of some recent experience that compels them to tell

the world about it.  This is usually "loved it" or "hated

it".  Tout'd (www.toutd.com)

provides for social accountability as you only get reviews from friends or

friends of friends.   You also get recommendations that are in response to

a friend's request for a recommendation.  The motivation for posting a

review on Tout'd is to help.  This makes reviews more valuable,

trustworthy, and actionable.  Check it out... tell me what you think about

it.

Robert Morelli
Robert Morelli

The fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of these sites.  There needs to be some layer of accountability for reviews to be trusted.  There is also a motivation problem... some people who post on Yelp (when not fake) often do so out of some recent experience that compels them to tell the world about it.  This is usually "loved it" or "hated it".  Tout'd (www.toutd.com) provides for social accountability as you only get reviews from friends or friends of friends.   You also get recommendations that are in response to a friend's request for a recommendation.  The motivation for posting a review on Tout'd is to help.  This makes reviews more valuable, trustworthy, and actionable.  Check it out... tell me what you think about it.

SukshanSakdsrinarang
SukshanSakdsrinarang

Fake reviews usually exaggerate the product to the extreme but some are done very well. However, I usually look for review especially in movies and hotel abroad. If I try booking a hotel without looking at the reviews, it is like buying a lotto which the outcome to be bad or good. 

Roham Gharegozlou
Roham Gharegozlou

That's why I use @Urbantag:twitter  and rely on reviews from folks I *know* are real

Greekgeek
Greekgeek

Google's old Quality Rater Guidelines treated online reviews with some caution, and regarded hotel reviews very skeptically indeed, from what I recall.

There's a whole cottage industry of people writing reviews of products they own and hoping someone will click on the links (to Amazon or an affiliate) and earn them a commission. While the temptation is there to write a glowing review of a crap product, in many cases, these work-at-home moms and retirees are scouring the house for things they like that they can recommend, which isn't quite the same thing.

It's more like the online equivalent of people becoming tupperware salespersons. 

But it's still a far cry from the hotel companies and various companies HIRING SHILLS to plant reviews on Expedia, Travelocity, Amazon, etc. 

All very complicated.

GoldenGir1
GoldenGir1

Fake reviews usually scream 'I am a fake!!! the business amp; their affiliates posted me!!'

It's all about using common sense... For me, I personally trust reviews on Amazon, expedia and Yelp - They either require or at least show whether one actually has purchased the item or not and Yelp is very aggressive in filtering out potential fakes

I am an active member on Yelp reviews (Have hundreds of reviews) and the purpose of reviewing there is so that the businesses that deserve to get more customers see a boom in business while attempting to spare others from the same displeasure as for those 1 star places.

If I remember correctly, I believe Newegg allows only customers who have purchased the item through the site to post reviews as well?

Stick to those. There will always be some fakes, but with such systems, you can generally sense that they are true genuine reviews. Also, if you want opinions of someone who regularly reviews rather than just as a rant mechanism when something fails, stick to the people that have lots of reviews at certain site (minimum 20 for me), especially with lots of midrange (2-4 star) reviews. It often involves super amazing service, or horrible experience to get someone to write a review, but the extremes don't help with what people will generally experience, and the extremes are statistically speaking, insignificant. If you see 1 or 5 star review from someone who has lots of midrange reviews, then you can truly distinguish the amazing from good, average, abysmal, to catastrophic.

Some reviewers really are honest and you can see the integrity in them. One review on Amazon that I recall is that he/she left a negative review, and apparently had been offered partial refund on the condition that he/she retracts the review. Guess what? This tidbit of communication from the seller was updated onto that review and really helped me make my decision. Shady businesses like that shouldn't be allowed to persist.

David Latham
David Latham

Many reviews are just plain wrong as well, especially in the world of tourism. You get paid to travel to an island so you talk it up, you call it the 'best secret of the state' when in reality it's an overpriced tourist trap and you're essentially worsening the problem with your story.

Michael Charleston
Michael Charleston

The problem is that, statistically speaking, one is more likely to post about a negative experience than a positive one.  So to say the natural baseline is objective, as Yelp says, is inaccurate.  There is an inherent subjectivity to reviews that will never go away.  Then why not at least off-set this by allowing businesses to solicit positive reviews? 

I bought a car 3 weeks ago.  They gave me a great deal and, overall, I had a genuinely good experience.  Towards the end of the transaction, the salesman asked that I submit a positive survey and that it helped them out.  Does that make my survey less objective?  I don't think so.  If I had a bad experience and he asked me to fill out a survey, I would've done so truthfully.  Did asking me to fill out the survey increase the likelihood of me filling out said survey?  Absolutely.

I know that this doesn't really address the real or fake question.  There are going to be fake reviews and there are going to be real reviews.  A business could have one overtly positive review on Yelp and you could conclude (accurately or not) that it is a fake review.  They could also have one overtly negative review and you could conclude that it was one unhappy, bad apple customer.  In either situation, I think the onus is on the reader to understand reviews are merely one factor in the decision-making process and that the reviews' influence should fluctuate based on the amount of information you are getting (i.e. sample size).  Welcome to the Internet.

Cmdr_Casey_Ryback
Cmdr_Casey_Ryback

Is this like all the spam-ad psuedo-comments on the "Time" site?

JohnOBX
JohnOBX

I give this article one star (*)

Just kidding.

I skip the fluff associated with any product I'm buying and go straight to the user reviews.  It is not hard to tell an artificial review from a genuine one.  Some Amazon reviewers are quite diligent in following up with their initial reviews, updating the reliability/condition of the product or item over months or even years.

  

Give me that sort of commitment to honesty over a paid actor any day.

therantguy
therantguy

First step...everybody who posts a review should have had to have bought the service through the website. Seriously, why is it even possible to post an Amazon review for books that haven't even been published yet? While advance copies are certainly around, it's just silly to let people who haven't proven they have at least purchased the book (or hotel or service) review it.

lyes
lyes

@dlevytrust how are we sure that the reviews are relevants ?

 If you pay me for leaving a review, i'll not leave a BAD review even if my experience was bad, no ?


adionu
adionu

@Sargio Bee you can try a "third party soluution" live http://positive-reviews.org . they seem to have solution to every filter... and it's kind of cheap compared to other services. 

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

"For me, I personally trust reviews on Amazon, expedia and Yelp"

These sites have all been gamed by fake reviews. Amazon is perhaps the most gamed site in history, with about a quarter to a third of its reviews estimated to be fakery. Yelp is second. This has been well-documented on the web. I tried posting links but Time keeps killing the posts. I guess they want to make sure you don't leave their page. But just Google it.

Gullible people like yourself are a review site's best friend.

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

"For me, I personally trust reviews on Amazon, expedia and Yelp"

These sites have all been gamed by fake reviews. Amazon is perhaps the most gamed site in history, with about a quarter to a third of its reviews estimated to be fakery. Yelp is second. This has been well-documented on the web. I tried posting links but Time keeps killing the posts. I guess they want to make sure you don't leave their page. But just Google it.

Gullible people like yourself are a review site's best friend.

BluBlue
BluBlue

 I generally disagree with this article, because while I'm VERY sure that some of the reviews are fake (either for or against a product) overall it's pretty easy to get the best in any category these days on a site like Amazon.com and know you are getting a good product. With very popular products you often have thousands of people casting their vote so overall you get a very good rating to gauge your judgement.

If on top of that you actually know about and research EXACTLY what you want to buy beforehand then you can select the absolute best product you want. I very honestly haven't really ever purchased anything online that I didn't know what I was getting and also wasn't happy with when I actually got it.

dot2dotnews
dot2dotnews

I know this article is about product reviews and such, your quite right in being able to identify a hoax, it is relatively easy. The same could be said about commenters on news articles ;) we savvy know that there are people out there paid to comment in order to influence wandering minds that perhaps aren't so savvy. Those are harder to identify. Back on topic, I'll often look at forums for reviews having read the review on the seller's/store website, if you see a correlation, you can be almost certain it's true.

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

> It is not hard to tell an artificial review from a genuine one.

What's your test for success? How often are you graded for your accuracy and who does the grading?

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

I also value user reviews greatly, but the caution is real, some sites, especially seller run ones do NOT publish negative reviews.

On the GoPro camera site you will only see 4 and 5 star reviews. 

Many people have reported publishing reviews with less stars.

They aren't there.