Cracking down on those phony online reviews

 

The internet is an invaluable research tool for consumers.BB branding

You can compare prices, closely examine the specs of a product, and even read in-depth reviews by other customers who want to share their experience with a business.

It’s not much different from getting a recommendation from a friend or family member.

Except when the review is a phony.

“I wonder how many times a relative or friend of a provider goes into a site and posts glowing reviews about their relative/provider, whether it is a doctor, restaurant, business or contractor,” said Diane Barry, a Bamboozled reader who uses and posts online reviews. “How can anyone really know for sure if these are honest reviews?”

Barry is right to be suspicious, but there’s some good news.

Because the fakery can be pervasive, some web sites are taking steps to make sure the consumer reviews on their sites are for real.

Yelp.com, for example, started a “Consumer Alerts” program in 2012 to warn consumers of suspicious activity by some companies.

oct 19 01Yelp uses a software program that looks for the most helpful or reliable reviews to highlight for customers, said Yelp spokeswoman Rachel Walker.

But then, Yelp looks for something more.

“We look, for example, for IP scams, and our team has found when multiple reviews came from one IP address,” Walker said, which indicates someone may be posting multiple reviews for the same company from one computer.

Yelp is also on the lookout for companies that offer some kind of financial incentive in exchange for awesome reviews.

The company recently found two New Jersey firms it says tried to entice customers to leave positive reviews — Atticare, a Secaucus-based home cleaning service, and HunkOMania, an Atlantic City male strip club. Yelp put “Consumer Alerts” up on the firms’ pages.

The alerts say: “We caught someone offering up cash, discounts, gift certificates or other incentives in exchange for reviews about this business. We wanted you to know because buying reviews not only hurts consumers, but also honest businesses who play by the rules.”

And then it offers a link to what it calls “the evidence.”

The alerts stay on the company’s page for 90 days, Yelp said.

Businesses who are thinking of engaging in this questionable behavior may want to reconsider. The Federal Trade Commission is pretty clear where it stands on fake or paid-for reviews.

Yelp isn’t the only web site fighting against fake reviews.

A recent paper, called “Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation,” spotlights the differences between how Expedia and TripAdvisor manage their reviews.

oct 19 02The paper found that while anyone can post on TripAdvisor, Expedia will only accept reviews by consumers who can show they actually stayed in a particular hotel. The conclusion? That it’s a lot easier to fake a review on TripAdvisor than it is on Expedia because of the “cost of manipulation” to get a phony review on Expedia, the paper said.

“Expedia offers verified hotel reviews – meaning that Expedia has confirmed that the writer has definitely paid for and stayed at the hotel to ensure the validity of the review,” spokeswoman Dayna Sason said. “Expedia Verified Reviews allow site visitors to trust that the reviews they’re reading are real and based on actual traveler experiences.”

oct 19 03TripAdvisor didn’t answer our requests for comment.

Companies that go the extra mile to authenticate reviews are doing the right thing for customers, but they’re also doing the right thing for the businesses listed on their sites.

Some less-than-reputable companies could, for example, leave a negative review for a competitor. That can be even more valuable to the poster than a positive review.

“Anyone with an axe to grind, can just post a horrible review and the owner of the business has no recourse,” said Bamboozled reader Barry.

So read online reviews with a grain of salt. Unless, of course, you know the web site you’re using takes steps to protect consumers from suspected snake oil salesmen.

Have you been Bamboozled? Contact Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com.

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