A Five Star Failure


By Samuel Greengard

Certain things are entirely predictable. One of them is that some people will eventually test the boundaries of any system (and sometimes blatantly cheat) in order to gain an advantage.

Online ratings—which are based on the idea that peers are a pretty good judge of the quality of a pizza, hotel or flat-screen TV—have devolved into a steaming cauldron of deceit. Gartner predicts that 10 to 15 percent of all online reviews will be fraudulent by 2014.

Apparently, things have tipped so far toward cheating that New York regulators are now cracking down on deceptive reviews on the Internet, The New York Times reports. The state's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, recently reached an agreement with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in fines.

The reviews in question—apparently originating from Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe—showed up at popular sites such as Goggle, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo! The reviewers, who were paid as little as $1 per review, either praised or took aim at shops, professionals and others they knew nothing about.

I've blogged about online reviews previously. Although I occasionally rely on comments to guide a buying decision, I find them mostly irrelevant and often confusing. One person rates an app with five stars and another sticks it with a single star. One person waxes poetic about a hotel and another makes it sound like a plywood shack minus a hookup to the grid. Cheating feeds the whiplash.

Nevertheless, online reviews are here to stay. In some fields, including IT, executives often base buying decisions on comments from their peers or online reviews. Only a few sites, usually in the professional sphere, have gone so far as to introduce user validation, community policing and other methods to combat fraud and increase the odds of generating authentic reviews from qualified people.

There's no question that experiences and perceptions vary—sometimes greatly. And, though a growing number of sites, including Google and TripAdvisor, have introduced algorithms to detect fraud and alert consumers, it's obviously not enough to thwart fake reviews.

It's great that New York state is getting serious about the issue. Let's hope others follow their example. A lack of trust hurts everyone.


2 Comments for "A Five Star Failure"

  • Eric Metelka October 09, 2013 8:39 am

    When you create a high value site with user generated content, there are two routes you can choose: curated users or curated content. More and more, the trend seems to moving to curating users. There are communities like Quibb that have a very low acceptance rate. At

  • alexander keenan October 09, 2013 4:51 am

    Yes I have seen fake reviews in a number of sites. When you see an single ID rate every product in a single category I tend to suspect the reviews because most people will order one or two products but not ALL products within a single category. So I tend to look for at least a set number of reviews from different users. This allows me to take an average. I tend to find that most cheating takes place with products and services. You do not find a lot of cheating with recipes for instance. On the flip side you also find a lot of review from people who are not experts on the subject they are reviewing. Simple recipes will tend to get higher reviews on average than recipes that require a high level of culinary skill to execute. Meaning that the majority within the population within the group who participate in that website will greatly impact the reviews. If you are in the majority this is great. If you are not in the majority then reviews are not as useful. This is why some food sites are useful to me and others are not useful. For example I have several BBQ sites that I can trust the ratings of recipes because my tastes tend to be similar to the majority of visitors to this site. I have some Food sites I avoid because I do not like many of the recipes that get high ratings I do not like at all.

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