When they're not bogus, online reviews from regular consumers are helpful, but it's increasingly difficult to separate the good from the bad.
If you read an online review that loves or hates something with a little too much gusto, there is a good chance that the post is a fake, written by someone connected to the business or to a rival.
The latest twist on this fakery is from marketing companies that get paid to post positive reviews by the thousands.
Last month, Edmunds.com called attention to the practice when it sued a Texas company that registered 2,200 “consumers” to review cars or dealerships on the site. The company, Humankind Design, advertises that it will post reviews on 15 sites, including Yelp, Google+ and Foursquare.
This was the most recent, and one of the most blatant, examples of how companies try to manipulate user-generated reviews.
“I would like to think that, in 2013, most people know that not everything you see on the Internet is true,” said Cheryl Harrison, principal of speechbubble, a public-relations agency in Columbus.
She often helps clients deal with negative reviews and find ways to get real customers to post positive ones.
Fake reviews tend to come in a few common varieties. Among them:
–Positive sentiments written by someone with a connection to the business. These often are the most-rapturous in their praise, and the most-detailed.
–Negative reviews written by someone from a competing business. These go into great detail to make a business look disgusting.
–Positive reviews written by a marketer. These are some of the least-detailed, as if they were written by someone who has never visited the business and might not even be in the same state.
The presence of even a few fake reviews is harmful to a market in which online reviews are becoming more important, said Rhett Ricart, co-owner of Ricart Automotive in Groveport.
“It only takes a few drops to change the flavor,” he said.
Red Roof Inn, which is based in Columbus, has chosen to embrace the army of citizen-reviewers. Starting last December, when a customer searches on RedRoof.com for a specific hotel, the company lists booking information next to the hotel’s rating and reviews on TripAdvisor.com.
The company chose to make TripAdvisor part of its site because many customers would go to the review site anyway, said Andrew Alexander, president of Red Roof Inn. The company has 354 locations in 39 states
“If someone leaves your site to go somewhere else, sometimes they don’t come back,” he said.
But that means customers see negative reviews along with positive ones. A recent reviewer of the Red Roof Inn in Hilliard gave it two of five stars and said “don’t stay unless you like springs in your back.” Another recent customer gave five stars and said the staff “went above and beyond to make sure we were happy.”
Alexander said he reads all of the 15,000 or so TripAdvisor reviews of his company each year. With that experience, he has gotten pretty good at sniffing out the fakes.
“We had a review where someone talked about how dirty the carpet was, and we had replaced our flooring (at that location) with vinyl-wood flooring,” he said. “Obviously, they were mistaken or they made it up.”
TripAdvisor has come under fire from people who say it is too easily manipulated by users who want to prop up or tear down a business.
In a recent case, a man in Britain made up a restaurant and posted glowing reviews of it on TripAdvisor. People who tried to visit the restaurant to sample its “mind-blowing” food ended up in a vacant alley, according to a story last week in The Telegraph of London.
The prankster told the newspaper he had created the restaurant to show the fallibility of user-generated reviews. He was upset that review sites often feature negative reviews that are likely written by people connected to rival businesses, he said.
A good way to spot a fake is its unreal level of enthusiasm, said Elizabeth Lessner, co-owner of Columbus Food League, a company that owns six restaurants, including Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North.
“When it’s reaching hyperbolic levels of explanation, good or bad, you know something is up,” she said.
She pointed to an example from two years ago on ColumbusUnderground.com. The thread was started by someone who asked whether anyone was aware of a new restaurant opening on Sawmill Parkway in Powell. Later, the same user said the restaurant’s owner is a “great guy” and the food was ” awesome.”
At this point, some of the other people on the message board began to comment about how some of the posts were obviously written by people connected to the business.
“There’s no reason to write a review like heaven has been found on Earth,” said one comment.
In the case of the car reviews, Edmunds.com flagged the fake accounts because they were coming from the same location. None of the reviews were actually posted and none dealt with Ohio dealerships, said Edmunds spokesman Aaron Lewis.
“Remarkably, (the) defendants use the fraudulent nature of the fictitious accounts they create as a benefit of their services,” Edmunds’ attorneys said in a filing.
Humankind Design, based near Galveston, Texas, touted its services at www.glowingreviews.co, a site that since has been taken down. The company said in an email that it had no comment.
“If one of the businesses you work with wants to improve their sales, they’ll need a regular flow of positive reviews posted online,” the company says in a video on the site. “We post reviews anonymously at a pre-defined drip rate. Dripping reviews out slowly is the key to appearing natural and not being spammed.”
Harrison, who runs the Columbus public-relations business, says consumers simply need to be skeptical when reading online reviews, especially those that are the most extreme. She thinks most people already know this, but, unfortunately, not everyone.
“The things that people believe on the Internet are astonishing,” she said.
(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services
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