Poor Reviews for Online Reviewers

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Wednesday, November 02, 2011 18:11 PM

by Samuel Greengard

When user reviews first hit the Internet, they were hailed as a way to tilt the power structure toward consumers. Suddenly, you could click to a site, Amazon, Yelp or TripAdvisor, and get the lowdown on a DVD player, restaurant or hotel. Chalk one up forthe common guy and gal.

But as time goes on, snooty critics look more and more attractive. Opinion spam now permeates the Internet. Everyone is a self-appointed expert and when you try to sort through dozens or hundreds of reviews you wind up more confused.

One person says that an app rates 5 stars and is among the best ever, another trashes it with 1 star and dishes up scathing commentary. Not that conventional critics and reviewers don't have differences of opinion but at least they're basing it on some type of criteria or experience, however flimsy.

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Of course, all of this assumes that we're talking about a legitimate review. Cornell University researchers recently studied more than 800 online reviews and found that humans are "lousy" at recognizing deceptive and fraudulent posts. A computer, on the other hand, could detect deceptive reviews with a 90 percent success rate. Words such as "business trip" and "my husband" on a travel site, along with certain punctuation and sentence patterns, are giveaways, they noted.

The Sunday Times in the UK has previously reported that fake reviews can pull down £3 (U.S. $4.83) each and that hotels have offered advice on how to produce fake reviews that can't be detected, including using IP cloaking.

Let's not even get into product placement, which embeds a mention of a product in a bogus review of another product.

Not surprisingly, TripAdvisor, Yelp and other sites are fighting back. In fact, TripAdvisor states that the vast majority of its reviews are authentic and it will take action against hotels that attempt to circumvent its rules. States have also taken legal action and imposed fines against offenders.

Unfortunately, online reviews, in the end, are largely a waste of time. As quickly as researchers decode the fake language, the fake reviewers adapt and game the system.

Yet, even if there's a way to prevent the poisoning of review sites, I'm left with the simple question: Do I really want to wade through waves of opinions spewing from the unwashed masses?