Should you trust online reviews?

You know you’ve done it before: you need to buy something or go somewhere and before you do, you hop online to see what you can find out about the product or service you’re looking for. Whether you’re buying a car or trying to find a new restaurant in a city you’re visiting, the internet can be a wealth of information. From Amazon to TripAdvisor to any retailer whose online site allows purchasers to review a product they’ve bought, the problem isn’t the amount of information out there: it’s making sense of it and discerning its reliability.

There is some beauty in the idea that any buyer or user can put in their two cents on a product or service, but that also enables more shady folk to manipulate reviews to their advantage. TripAdvisor was in the news this year when it was brought to light that hotel owners were posting fake reviews to improve their rankings and popularity. And they’re not alone — many online review sites have come under fire for fraudulent reviews, which include false positive reviews done by the company or people they’ve asked to post on their behalf, fake negative reviews of their competitors, gift certificates in exchange for positive reviews, and more. Last year, the New York Attorney General’s office began an Operation Clean Turf initiative that eventually led to 19 companies (in varying industries) to agree to cease commissioning fake online reviews (and pay hefty fines to the tune of $350,000).

online reviews

While most online review sites say they have algorithms that filter out fraudulent reviews, these filters clearly don’t catch all of them. I worked for a business a couple of years ago whose owners posted false positive reviews for every location of the business, and had their personal friends post reviews of many locations as well. One friend even posted that he had frequented the business for services from me — and I had never met the guy. Yelp, TripAdvisor, and many other sites offer any user the ability to ‘flag’ a review if they believe it to be fraudulent. What happens then is relatively unknown, so users basically need to hope for the best.

Georgios Zervas, an assistant professor of marketing at the BU School of Management co-authored a study called Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud. In an interview regarding that study, he made the following statement: “My coauthor Michael Luca did a great study on this and found that having an extra star on Yelp causes the revenue of a business to rise by 5 to 10 percent, so there’s a direct connection between Yelp ratings and a business’ bottom line”. A 5–10% increase in revenue qualifies as pretty high stakes, hence the proliferation of online reputation-management firms. We also know that there are indeed real people out there writing reviews and contributing to the robust and growing community of crowdsourced information. So how do you know if you should trust online reviews?

Tips for finding the most reliable online reviews

A reliable place to start

First, you should start by using the most reliable site. As of this writing, all the evidence seems to point to Yelp as your best bet. According to a recent study by Nielsen, (full disclosure: that particularly study was commissioned by Yelp) Yelp is seen as the most trustworthy review site by consumers. Obviously, this evaluation is quite subjective, so you can take that with a grain of salt, but it is a good place to start. The same study indicated that consumers view TripAdvisor and Angie’s List as the second and third most reliable review sites (respectively). For bigger purchases (say, replacing all the windows in your home), checking multiple sites is also a good way to cover your bases.

Examine the business

When you’re perusing online reviews, don’t just passively scan and look for star ratings or the overall star rating. Look at what the reviews actually have to say. One person’s negative review may mean a positive for you. If you like to go out and be fancy-schmancy for the evening at a fancy restaurant and a negative review slams the place for being too ‘uptight’ with a strict dress code, you’ll know you’re heading to the right type of place right off the bat. Some users may complain about too large or too small portion sizes — which may be the opposite of what you look for in a restaurant.

Don’t forget to take a look at the number of reviews a business has — I always feel much more comfortable with a place that has a higher number of reviews — the average review rating tends to be much more reliable than a business with only 1 or 2 reviews. Look at standout reviews, too. If a business has mostly 1 and 2 star reviews and then suddenly 5 stars, those great reviews may not be so reliable. In the interest of giving businesses the benefit of the doubt that they can change, take a look at the dates of reviews, too.

Some sites (like Angie’s List and Amazon) also indicate in the review if services have been rendered or if there was a verified purchase. Most people would be more inclined to trust a review of a product that was definitely purchased than if they didn’t know that information.

Examine the reviewer

When reading reviews, it is always a good idea to see how many businesses a user has reviewed. Have they only submitted that one (extremely negative or positive) review? I’d be less likely to trust what they have to say. If a user goes to the trouble of signing up for a review site and submitting that single review, chances are they’ve had an unusually bad experience, or they may have some — ahem- outside encouragement to post their glowing review.

If the user has posted more than just a few reviews, look at what other places they’ve reviewed. Have they reviewed ten Thai restaurants and hated them all? Maybe Thai food isn’t their thing. Have they reviewed 20 yoga studios and given them all five stars? Maybe they aren’t that picky about yoga. Is every review for every business a 1-star review? Perhaps they only review when they have a bad experience. Try to get a feel for the reviewer and see if they are ‘like you’.

While all of this may seem like an overwhelming amount of stuff to take into account when using online reviews, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be unless you make it. It could take no more than a few clicks and more of a glance than an in-depth read of reviews. Obviously, depending on the gravity of your purchase or service, you can tailor the amount of vetting you do for online reviews. Going out for a burger should require a much more brief overview of reviews and reviewers than having major work done on your home. But whatever you do, don’t forget the cardinal rule: Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s true — so take what you read with a grain of salt!

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