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Bogus online reviews: Who can you trust?

Bogus online comments from made up personas. Everybody knows they exist, it’s really only the degree that is in question.

Customer reviews are becoming increasingly important in an online world so when a U.S. car-shopping web site found out it was being manipulated, it went about suing the company that had allegedly been scamming its membership lists.

Santa Monica, California-based Edmunds.com said this month it had filed a lawsuit against a Texas-based company, Humankind Design Ltd. for fraud and breach of the Edmunds.com membership agreement.

Edmunds.com said after reviewing its rating it found 2,200 fake members and said the memberships were being used to create “fraudulent content” to influence the opinion of consumers of some car dealers.

Edmunds.com

“We can’t go into the details because we don’t make it easier for people to game the system,” said Seth Berkowitz, president of Edmunds.com

Mr. Berkowitz did say that his company reviews all ratings before they are posted, something that is not done for all comments on all websites.

“We have human beings read every review,” he said, adding certain written comments trigger compliance concerns. The company has had 1.5 million members, so 2,200 is only a fraction of members.

Still, what’s interesting is that Edmunds.com said the fake memberships were being warehoused so they could be aged for a period of time which would just add to the credibility of the reviews once they were published by bogus members.

How reviews are collected is clearly something consumers need to be aware of, if they are relying on that information to make a purchase choice.

“It’s become a major part of commerce,” said Mr. Berkowitz. “Every consumer with access to a computer or a smart phone is looking up businesses all the time.”

Businesses have come to take reviews from the public seriously because of the both positive and negative effect they can have on potential customers. The lawsuit mentions 15 other sites were potentially targeted including Google+, Yelp, and Foursquare.

The lawsuit involves only the U.S. but there is little doubt in Mr. Berkowitz’s mind that it’s a problem that transcends borders and exists in Canada as well.

Every single website in world has some reviews on it that are bogus

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“Every single website in world has some reviews on it that are bogus,” said Mr. Berkowitz, adding negative reviews put up by competitors are a common tactic online.

Richard Talbot, of Talbot Consulting Inc., says he consults online reviews all the time but says the key is probably to take them with a grain of salt.

“I look at them with a jaundiced view,” said Mr. Talbot. “If I’m looking at hotels, I’ll look at Frommer’s but I also look at TripAdvisor.ca too. You have to have a little bit of moxy and read between the lines.”

He says it is sometimes very obvious when reviews are legit and others times when the person writing the review has some sort of grievance with the establishment.

Also key to deciding whether an online review is real is whether it is anonymous. If there is a name and a picture or a link to Facebook account, it obviously adds credibility. “If you are not prepared to put your name on something that’s a problem. It’s like anything on the web,” said Mr. Talbot.

Businesses have almost no choice but to respond to comments posted about their establishments. Somebody says your hotel has bed bugs, you really need to be on top of it.

“We use hoteladvisor.ca passively,” says Keith Simmonds, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge Niagara Falls, a waterpark resort. “If an issue arises that requires attention, we ask the guest to contact us.”

In the end, he believes that the truth prevails for websites that have active participation and traffic. “I believe in the law of averages,” says Mr. Simmonds, adding there’s not a lot that can be done about people writing mischievous or spiteful reviews. “I think as a consumer or business, you use your judgment to review the review.”

Ian Tostenson, president of the British Columbia Restaurant and Food Service Association, said dining is more neighborhood oriented but for adventuresome diners reviews are important. Online reviews still only impact a small amount of revenue in his industry.

Part of the problem with some reviews is that expectations exceed reality, he says. You really can’t expect an $18 hamburger from a fast food restaurant but people do and then write a negative review.

Mr. Tostenson also has confidence that online readers are smart enough to know some reviews can be off base. Ranting about bad service might just be one bad waiter or waitress.

But enough bad reviews will get noticed. “A bunch of negative stuff and the restaurant guy will step in and address the issue,” he said.

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Mystic Maggie

All of the Mystic Maggie Posts are RSS Reader Feeds from around the web. All copyright remains with the original publisher. No copyright is claimed or intended. Where supplied, links back to the original article are included.

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1 comment

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