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Online reviews: How consumers can separate the real from the phony

Posted August 8

Online reviews are everywhere, and so are fake reviews designed to praise or criticize a product or service. Here are some ways to tell the two apart. (Deseret Photo)

“This is the speaker I have been waiting for for years!”

“Don't waste your money.”

Those two widely differing viewpoints — snippets of real reviews for Amazon's Bluetooth speaker Tap — illustrate the challenge faced by countless online shoppers: When it comes to product and service reviews, how can you tell which one to believe? It’s an important question both for consumers as well as businesses that solicit online feedback.

“Online reviews are a vital way consumers find the right product or service for their needs,” said Hannah Brown, an online reputation management specialist. “And online reviews are just as important — if not more important — for local small service businesses, as the reviews can be the deciding factor whether a customer calls you or your competition.”

Being a savvy shopper means doing some legwork, which includes poring over online reviews that require a trained eye to distinguish between the fake and the genuine critiques before making a purchase.

A growth industry?

To prevent deceptive online marketing, the Federal Trade Commission has regulations in place that consider false reviews a "law violation," said spokesman Michael Ostheimer, that can be subject to federal prosecution as well as legal action by misled consumers. But, he noted, the FTC is likely to become involved only in high profile cases.

"Local issues are probably below our radar," Ostheimer said.

Online reviews would be an unwieldy area to regulate as online retailing continues to grow. Yelp reportedly has more than 70 million reviews. In addition to businesses posting ersatz reviews of their own, there are companies that sell concocted reviews for a host of online platforms.

“Some of these companies do a tremendous job of writing seemingly legitimate reviews. The best of them will pass an expert's audit,” said digital consultant Igor Kholkin. “Even ‘verified purchasers’ are not always real, as site owners will provide the reviewer a one-time coupon to 'buy' a product for free and then review as a verified purchaser.”

The red flags

Although many sites have incorporated algorithms and other safeguards to identify fake reviews, it’s still incumbent on individual consumers to spot certain warning signs.

First, pay attention to the way the review reads.

“In most cases it is possible to figure if the review is fake just by language,” said Alex Barshai of ThirdTemple Digital. “Usually fake reviews are very long and descriptive, with well spelled and nicely built sentences. Real reviews are short and straight to the point.”

The timing of various reviews can also prove a tipoff. For example, if a bunch of positive or negative reviews appear on a site within a relatively short timeframe, that can suggest an orchestrated — and fake — effort.

It can also be advantageous to cross reference reviews. For instance, if you’re interested in a particular restaurant, investigate it on as many review platforms as possible. In particular, take note of the number of reviews — the greater the number, the more confident you can generally be about the overall consensus.

“If you find a company on Google Maps with 200 four-star reviews, you can be very confident these are real and people are happy with their services,” said Mark Tuchscherer, president of website designers Geeks Chicago. “The same could be said about products on a site like Amazon. If you are doing research across multiple review sites and you only find two or three reviews — and all of these reviews are the same, or look like they were written by the same person — they are probably fake.”

Additionally, look into the background of people who post the interviews, not only in terms of the review itself but the location of the businesses and services being reviewed.

“For instance, look at their Google review history. If they're all negative reviews, that tells me this person just likes to talk smack online and this should not be taken seriously,” said Brown. “Look at the location of their review history. If a user has written a ton of negative reviews, and they span across the United States, this may be spam.”

Online opinions of local versus national brands can also be a factor for consumers to consider. In a paper titled “Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation," researchers looked at nearly 3,000 online reviews on Trip Advisor and Expedia and determined that "the net gains from promotional reviewing are highest for independent hotels … and lowest for branded chain hotels."

Lastly, don't be overwhelmed by the number of reviews available for a certain product or service. Instead, focus on the relevance and age of reviews: "You want to see reviews that actually describe the advantages or disadvantages of using the product, not just glowing praise," said Brown.

Responding to fake reviews

Although most consumers who identify a phony review may simply shrug it off, you can take action. For instance, Schmidt suggested contacting Google (via Twitter) to point out a suspect review and see if they agree with you. If they do, they may be willing to “flag” the review.

That can ultimately lead to more punitive action by the online retailer. In late 2015, Amazon brought legal action against more than 1,000 unidentified people it claimed provided fake reviews, alleging a negative impact on brand reputation.

And, if your product, business or service happens to be the target of a nasty, fake review, go after the problem head on.

“Respond to the review as the business if you believe this is fake. Potential customers want to see that the business cares,” said Brown. “If the business points out that they believe this is a fake review — and gives their reasoning as to why it's fake — potential customers will see that and know that the business has good customer service. Also, always provide contact information if the user wants to reach out. For most fake reviews, the user never responds back — leaving the local business with the last word.”

Jeff Wuorio lives in Southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at jwuorio@yahoo.com, and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.

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