Lying and Online Buying

Trust is Key

It doesn’t really need to be said, but I’m saying it anyway: E-commerce is the future of shopping.

There are tremendous benefits to shopping online: a seemingly infinite, searchable inventory, more transparent and more robust comparative pricing, the convenience of never having to leave your couch, seamless integration of recommendations with product information, resulting in deals everywhere.

Frankly, there are only a few places where brick and mortar stores are giving their e-counterparts a run for their money: experiential shopping and perceived trustworthiness. After all, things can appear easier to evaluate when you can touch them.

To quote one of my favorite advocates on the subject, Alibaba’s Jack Ma recently said, “For e-commerce the most important thing was trust … without the trust system … it’s impossible to do business”. (World Economic Forum, Davos)

The thing is, the source of that trust today is driven by return and replace guarantees on the part of large marketplaces, *not* the marketplaces themselves. Essentially, the only reason we trust online shopping today is because we don’t bear any risk … beyond the hassle of shipping things back if we’re not satisfied.

This might be a hassle for marketplaces, but makes a lot of sense, because, in truth, online shopping today is a den of filthy lies.

How We Buy & Why They Lie

While the range of potential purchase options is huge, the average consumer only has a limited number of tools at his disposal when trying to make the right decision:

- The vendor’s marketing copy and flashy feature lists
- Affiliate marketing sites peddling in depth comparisons (a pathetically light veil for their bias)
- Professional and semi-professional review sites
- User generated review sections, typically on product detail pages
- Forums

How and when to rely on each of the above is a complex process. For me it typically involves about 15–20 open tabs for large purchases (dipping into all of the above) and a quick skim of the 1–3 star reviews for cheap ones. Oh, and if it hasn’t been reviewed I probably won’t buy it at all.

Unfortunately for me and those of you with similar buying habits, this means I regularly am making decisions based on lies.

See, many online marketers (and I include outright scam artists in this category) know that reviews are important in the buying process … and that they’re pretty easy to influence. The temptation to get involved to influence buyers’ decisions can be hard (impossible?) to avoid.

What To Look Out For

There are two particularly special breeds of lie in the e-commerce space: false endorsements (positive reviews) and false complaints (negative reviews). The best part: they’re for sale.

In a particularly enlightening piece, David Segal of The Haggler recounts his journey into the bowels of Fiverr, a cash for services site, where with a few clicks and a couple of bucks he showed you could buy a positive or negative opinion on just about any platform you’d like.

Disclosure and objectivity are also issues. Many reviewers will receive products for free in exchange for testimonials, a marketing practice called sampling. Some conveniently gloss over or forget to mention the gifting. If they do open up about the source, issues of bias are still evident (though certainly less problematic).

While some sites are actively fighting against such practices (see suing over 1,100 false reviewers), many will slip through the cracks. Others don’t have the resources to fight the tide or, in some cases, are actively encouraging the process.

Your Internal Lie Detector

I know what you’re thinking: “These fakes might fool you, but I’m smarter than that. In fact, I can spot one of those smarmy reviews from, like, miles away”.

I hate to say it, but it’s highly unlikely.

In 2011, researchers at Cornell conducted a study of 800 hotel reviews, half of which were fraudulent positive reviews and half real, verified responses.

Much to the dismay of the researchers, participants couldn’t tell which were real and which were not any better than pure chance (although an algorithm could pick out the rotten ones almost 90% of the time).

Leaving the reasons for our gullibility aside, the fact is we’re absolutely, embarrassingly, and consistently bad at lie detection.

What Can I Do

While sentiment analysis and machine learning can already identify certain lies, implementing anti-fraud mechanisms is the job of the marketplaces, not the consumers. So where do you fight back?

One practical way to fight the tide is by looking and listening for more verbs than nouns in the content. Liars tend use more imaginative language, while truth-tellers tend to provide unadorned facts.

It’s tedious, but you can certainly review the reviewers. Finding an authority that’s open and honest ain’t easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. Think of it like dating; are they open and honest about their flaws? Have they lied to you before?

It can’t hurt to seek out platforms that promote honesty, or at least provide an expert opinion. Trusted sellers and reviewer programs can lead to more quality guidance. At Unboxd, we’re introducing an open forum to engage on a more personal level with other consumers — but full disclosure, I work there, and frankly I’m a little biased.

In sum, when you’re shopping online, go in with eyes wide open, because sooner or later you’re gonna get taken for a ride … and, if you’re up for it, take 30 seconds to share your opinion, the universe will thank you for it.

P.S. If you’d like to test the Private Beta of the new Unboxd app, sign up for the testing list at:

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