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The problem with online reviews

Recently, I’ve been helping a friend who’s a local small business owner; it’s opened my eyes to some of the things that are going on in the online review business. You know the sites – the ones where you provide reviews of your local restaurants, services, and other establishments, and then others use those reviews to decide where to have lunch, get their car serviced, or hire someone to repair their roof.

In fact, online reviews are critical in many venues, including my own (which I’ll get to in a minute).

The problem is that online reviews can be gamed in both directions by all sorts of interested parties. Worse, the solutions to stop reviewers from gaming the results are often worse than the problem that they’re attempting to solve.

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The basic idea

By encouraging and collecting reviews of products and services, the idea is that those who provide quality products and services will be rewarded with more sales and business. Those who do not receive positive reviews will be “punished” (in a sense) by losing business, but they could hopefully use that information and feedback to improve whatever it is they do or sell.

At the other end of the process, consumers like us have a resource that we can use to more quickly and easily find good products and services, as well as share our experiences, good or bad, with others.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Unfortunately, like so many things on the internet, there are people who want to unfairly take advantage of this system.

Gaming the system

There are two basic approaches that people have attempted to use to make the system less than accurate:

Like!Fake positive reviews. Business know that positive reviews mean that they can get more business or sell more product. So some unscrupulous businesses buy them. Not only do they use low-cost labor, but they also use actual monetary or product incentives to entice customers to write fake positive reviews. Often, those reviews are written by people who have never even used the product or service.

Fake negative reviews. In a competitive market, that same technique can be used to purchase negative reviews of your competition. By dragging down their reputation on a review site, your reputation is inflated in comparison and customers that might have gone to the competitor would presumably come to you instead.

Needless to say, both techniques are against every review site’s terms of service (as they should be), but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

To be clear: asking for reviews is perfectly legitimate and actually becoming a very important part of doing business these days. What’s not OK is asking for a specific type of review (good or bad) or asking only some of your customers for reviews (thus, also stacking the deck by asking only customers that you know already like your product).

Stopping the gamers

As a result of the massive attempts to game the crowd-sourced review system, most review sites will try to identify reviews that they feel are not legitimate or perhaps even just not quite trustworthy. Those reviews will then be blocked, hidden, or simply removed.

And here’s where the system breaks down.

The larger review sites can’t do that by hand – there are just too many reviews being posted every day for them to be read and reviewed by a real person. As a result, they have their systems analyze reviews automatically against some codified criteria1.

Amazon appears to be an example of a system that more or less works. They have taken proactive actions against people trying to buy reviews on their site. While no system is perfect, it appears that the reviews on Amazon typically work.

On the other hand, other sites appear to be horribly broken. Their claims that their analysis algorithm is hiding some reviews because they’re suspect is often flat-out wrong as completely legitimate reviews are quickly discarded. Put another way, using an algorithm as an excuse for hiding valid reviews doesn’t help when the algorithm itself is broken.

What’s a consumer to do?

The results of my experience looking into this in the past few weeks have seriously eroded my faith in most online review services. Given what I’ve seen, it’s clear that they can’t be completely trusted. Some might say that they’re still better than nothing, but I wonder. If a review service is actively hiding known accurate reviews, that brings into question whatever reviews they do allow to appear.2

Who do you trust?

As I mentioned above, I tend to give some weight to Amazon ratings and reviews. I don’t trust them absolutely – even with 100% legitimate (non-fake, honest) reviews, there’s enough variation in humanity that reviews of even the best products and services can quite reasonably show a wide range of experiences.

A couple of years ago, I signed up for Angie’s List. It’s not available in all areas, but I find that it is an excellent source of more honest information. The catch? It’s not free, even to post a review. That means that it’s financially unfeasible to game the system by buying reviews and the people who do leave reviews have a vested interest in the quality of their reviews. I’ve saved much more than my subscription price by having found several high quality local services in the last two years.

Above all, take every review site and every review with a grain – or a bag – of salt3. Don’t use it as your only source of information on products and services. In fact, use several review sites against one another to look for consistency. Then measure that against your own experiences to at least build some level of trust with the reviewing site.

Sadly, there’s no reviewing site for the reviewing sites. That could be an interesting discussion.

What’s a business to do?

This is really, really tough.

Besides providing excellent products, services, and customer experiences, what can a business – particularly a small business – do when the review sites seem less than accurate?

Very little, it seems.

And yet, you can’t ignore them completely.

Ask your customers for reviews. Again, don’t ask for positive reviews – just ask for reviews from all of your customers, not just the ones that you like. If you truly are providing excellent service, then this alone should reward you over time (in theory).

Here’s an example4: if you’ve purchased an Ask Leo! book, then I’d appreciate it if you added your honest review to the Amazon page for that book. Honest reviews help others find useful information and help me understand just what kind of information that I should be providing.

Learn from the negative reviews. Don’t take them personally, but do look for trends and ideas to help you make your business or product better.

There’s a school of thought that you might respond to reviews if you can do so in a positive manner. That means you must put your own ego aside and focus on making even your customer’s negative experience an excellent one instead. This can show you as taking things, especially your customers, seriously. However, if your first reaction to bad reviews is to get defensive and argumentative, don’t. That will just make things worse, often much worse.

Footnotes & references

1: Criteria that they cannot divulge, because doing so would make it easier for the gamers to work around those criteria.

2: There are allegations that some give the businesses who advertise with them hidden preferential treatment in their ratings.

3: An idiom that means don’t blindly believe everything that you read.

4: Truly: I’d love to see your review up on Amazon – good, bad, or indifferent!

6 comments on “The problem with online reviews”

  1. I have been reading Leo for 4-5 years now and have never found anything that didn’t make sense or work as he suggests. I also agree with your appraisal of the Amazon review system. I tend to lean towards products that have a bunch of reviews (hundreds) and when that’s not possible I check to see if the negatives are livable or a result of someone not reading directions etc. I do tend to be more suspicious of products or services which have 10-20 glowing comments because this is earth and people are people and no matter what, nothing is ever universally agreed upon as “great”.

    • On of the things that Amazon.com does is to really encourage comments on purchases. That keeps the comment volume high and helps dilute spam attempts as well. It’s so sad to really contemplate how spamming has hurt small businesses in so many ways. Really makes it tough for local businesses.

  2. Reviews are always suspect because for someone to be motivated to make a review they usually are a dissatisfied customer. The satisfied customer usually does not take the time to leave a review. So the volume of satisfied to dissatisfied customers is not a good test of a products worth. So to get a real idea of the product you have to go through each review and read them and try to make sense of their comments, which takes a lot of time.

  3. What I find really discouraging are TV ads that openly promote improving your business reputation by ensuring you get more positive reviews–for a monthly fee. How can this be legal?

  4. I understand similar concerns have been raised about the way in which “gaming” is being used in some Apps stores (notably the Windows Phone Store). I.e. Get 10 of your friends to do a very positive review, and if there’s only 10 reviews, then it all looks exceptionally “good”. And noting the comment made by Ken in San Jose (which I strongly agree with) – because many of us tend not to make positive comments, any negative comments made by “real” people could readily be balanced by the false positive ones.

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