3 Ways to Spot Fake Reviews

Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 5:21 PM EST

A friend (who will remain anonymous) was recently asked to take a job writing reviews. The position paid good money and would allow her to work from home. But the employer was initially a little sketchy on the details of what she'd be reviewing.

Would she analyze movies or restaurants for a newspaper or website? Do product evaluations for a media company like Consumer Reports? Mystery Shopper reviews of customer service?

Uhm, no....They wanted her to write fake reviews and post them on web sites to support online sales of various products. My friend turned down the offer, but her experience underscores what many savvy web shoppers already know. Bogus product reviews are big business -- and they're increasingly being written by pros.

To be fair, some companies turn to fabricating positive reviews to counter-act equally bogus negative reports. And some fake reviews -- such as the famed Amazon reviews of milk -- are meant to be funny.

But because online shoppers are increasingly using reviews to help make purchasing decisions on everything from television sets, cell phones and books to hotels and airlines, consumers can't just turn a blind eye to growing problem, says Phil Lindeman, blogger for Coupon Sherpa. It can be incredibly difficult to spot a good fake, he says.

Lindeman recently dug into the product review world to see if he could spot the tell-tale signs of planted reviews. No one sign was definitive, he said. But he came up with 17 red flags, including weirdly worded phrases and reviewers with generic-sounding names, like "Bob."

Of course, he's not the first -- nor likely to be the last -- to call attention to bogus reviews. Even the FTC weighed in after nabbing a public relations firm that regularly touted its clients' products through bogus consumer reviews written by publicists using pseudonyms and anonymous postings.

How do you make sense of it all, without spending more time analyzing the veracity of the reviews than the product itself? Here are a few quick tips:

1. Consider the source. Many newspapers, magazines and news web sites (including this one) write occasional reviews of products that seem pertinent for our readers. MoneyWatch, for example, has reviewed immediate annuities and money management web sites, among other things. The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg, regularly reviews technology products. And, of course, Consumer Reports rates everything from refrigerators to tires.

You may disagree with the writers' opinions, but staff-written reviews at legitimate news sites at least are not influenced by payments from advertisers. (Beware sections titled "Advertising supplement." Advertising supplements are paid advertisements, not editorial content.)

Independent bloggers, on the other hand, are often paid to write positive reviews. This practice is so wide-spread, in fact, that eHow even has a series of stories about how much bloggers can expect to earn and whether you should disclose that you're being paid to blog.

If you're not sure about the legitimacy of a review, look for the reviewers criteria. A news site will tell you how they made the judgments, which allows you to evaluate the legitimacy of the review.

2. User-Generated Content. A review is separate from the comments that follow it. Although most news sites encourage readers to post comments, these comments are typically only deleted if they're abusive or obvious product shills. We may suspect there's faking going on, but won't act unless it's obvious or verifiable. One example: On a recent post I wrote about buying cell phones for seniors, we got 20 comments in just a couple of days on a post that, frankly, wasn't that well-read. Almost all the comments favored one manufacturer. Are people really that enthused about TracFone? Color me skeptical.

3. Look for links and product-speak. Another tell-tale sign that a reviewer isn't legitimate is when they're too detailed, says Lindeman. Real people talk and write like your friends, saying things like:
  • "love the cup holders"
  • "delivered damaged and company didn't give a damn"
  • "gorgeous hotel; cozy beds"
  • "Ewww...bed bugs."
Do your friends chirp out the full product name, model number and price? Do they provide a link to where you can buy the product? Are you an engineer? Then, probably not.

If a review has too much detail, consider it a red flag. People, who aren't getting paid, don't talk like that.

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