Can you tell the difference between “paid” reviews versus “real” reviews?

Whenever people learn that I do research about online reviews, this is the NUMBER ONE question that I am asked.  Or some variant of it.

Let me start off by saying that I understand the concern about fake reviews.  However, I also believe that this is an area that’s sort of been hyped by the mass media.  Sure, we have all read about cases of people writing fake reviews for profit, as well as people trying to “game the system” in other ways. (After all, this happens in virtually every realm of human activity.)   But let’s remember that just because we’ve been able to identity, or detect, a few instances of unethical behavior, doesn’t mean that the majority of cases are like that.  Think about it – when we read a news story about online reviews, it is typically about someone getting busted for doing something that violates the rules…but when do we ever hear any stories about the thousands of people who have no ulterior motives in posting their reviews?

At this point in time, billions of reviews have been posted online.  Literally billions. From a simple economic standpoint, it is unlikely that *the majority of a billion reviews* could have been paid for.

Although I am by no means an expert on deception detection, here is a brief list of some of the popular “red flags” which, we are told, are signals that a review might be fake.  (Most of these tips will probably seem like common sense to you.)

1)      Be skeptical of a reviewer who’s only posted 1 review on the site.  The general rule of thumb is that the more reviews an individual has posted on a particular site, the more trustworthy that reviewer is likely to be.

2)       Beware of reviews that consist of empty superficial descriptions with no specifics of personal experience. Or reviews that just list a bunch of product features.

3)      Reviewers who spend a lot of time endorsing a competitor’s product within their review may also be suspicious.

4)      You might want to question those reviews that are 100% good or 100% negative –in other words, the ones that are categorical in their assessment.  So a “balanced perspective” is something to look for in a quality review.  In other words, legitimate reviewers often demonstrate that they are able to discern and discriminate between different features of a single product or service.

[For example, my early work on TripAdvisor showed that quite a few negative reviews actually did include some positive features.  So 1-star reviews would often also include positive statements such as the following: “One good thing was that the bed linen was fresh,” “The place was clean. That is the one good thing i can say,” “Firstly the good points… there were plenty of beach chairs” and “The good: It was a large room with a bed.” ]

I believe that I have some good news to add to this conversation.  Out of the 1,000 reviews which I sampled in a semi-random fashion for my book, very few struck me as potentially “fake” (in the sense of possessing one or more of the aforementioned “red flag” characteristics.)  On the contrary, most of the reviews in my sample were quirky, idiosyncratic, and full of so many odd personal details that I often found myself thinking: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

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