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Can You Really Trust Online Reviews?

girl thinkingWhenever Amazon sends me information about a product it thinks I might like the first thing I do is go to the site and look for product reviews. I read both the positive and negative reviews, look at how many stars the product has received and then make a buy or not buy decision. So, my world was rocked a bit when I read an article about online reviewers and what they won’t tell you.

70% trust these reviews

A recent study found that 70% of consumers trust reviews from sources such as Angie’s List, Yelp and Trip Advisor. But, and here comes the shocking fact, about 40% of these reviews are bogus. This is because it’s easy for businesses to find people who will write online reviews for just a few dollars. While the review sites agree that fakes can be a problem, they claim they have systems that will pick out suspicious write-ups.

Using friends and relatives

Business owners will also sometimes have their employees, family members and friends post favorable reviews under false identities. These are called “sock puppet” accounts and of course, the reviews are always glowingly positive. Or they may be darkly negative reviews of the company’s competition.

You can’t always trust five stars

A study done in 2008 found that 60% of the product reviews on got five stars, while another 20% were awarded four stars. Are all these products really that great? The bogus and requested reviews probably add to the higher ratings, particularly since the number of negative reviews is small in relation to the number of Amazon customers. Plus, shoppers are more likely to give good reviews of purchases that got them excited and feeling good vs. those that were disappointments.

Reviewers and free products

A study done in 2011 by Cornell University of 166 Amazon’s “top 1000 reviewers found that 85% of them had gotten free products from publishers and manufacturers. And 78% reported that they always or often posted a review of such products. Worse yet, 88% reported that their reviews were always or often positive. FTC (Federal Trade Commission) regulations require these reviewers to disclose any payments or freebies received. But there’s no penalty or fine for violators. A spokeswoman for said that companies can use the Amazon Vine program to offer free products upfront but they must allow for both positive and negative reviews. The write-ups are supposed to reveal that the reviewer received a product free.

A false review might be better

Believe it or not, retailers that allow product ratings say that false reviews are not so bad. Positive reviews mean good business for them. This is because shoppers who compare options are more likely to purchase a product that has a few positive reviews than one that has no reviews at all. For that matter, they may opt to buy elsewhere if the product has no reviews.

At the top of a list

If you’re looking for a restaurant or a pet groomer, expect that businesses will have paid for preferential placement to appear at the top of the list. And one general contractor says he regularly gets calls from Yelp offering to help him capitalize on his page views and “work on” his negative reviews.

Caveat emptor

The net/net here that when it comes to reviews, like many things in business, let the buyer beware. The reviews you read might be helpful in terms of features and benefits but don’t let your purchase decision be swayed because someone posted an incredibly glowing review, which might actually be fake.

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