Scouting Honest Reviews Online

A quarter hour spent reading this post will inform you of my far-from-perfect approach to IDing legit reviews online.

WHY IT MATTERS

The press has finally paid some attention to bogus reviews; witness this article, describing the market for such prostituted praise on Fiverr. Such articles can persuade innocents that Something Is Being Done, that reviews will henceforth be more trustworthy.

Lo dudo, dear reader, lo dudo mucho. Try plugging ‘review’ into the Fiverr search box; you’ll see. And those offers are just from the small fry. I’d be shocked if a corporate VP can’t read between the lines of a PR agency pitch to, say, “communicate product benefits to internet users” or “enhance brand image online.”

I have no evidence to back up such cynicism, still trust wisdom gained from decades as a grown-up. A national magazine ad campaign can cost as much as a Belvedere château. How much does it cost to click ‘post?’

Bogus reviews are too cheap, too profitable, too influential, too tough to catch. That VP doesn’t have to spell out what she wants to a gig-hungry PR agency. “Never write what you can say, never say what you can wink” made Aphorism for a reason.

If in doubt, please read this former boxing manager’s description of the reading-between-the-lines phrases he once used to fix fights:

You call up or visit the gym of any trainer who represents “opponents,” and have the following exchange:

“I’ve got a middleweight who could use a little work.” [Read: His fight shouldn’t be more than a brisk sparring session.]

“I got a good kid. But he ain’t been in the gym much lately.” [He’s out of shape.]

“That’s OK. I’m not looking for my guy to go too long.” [It’s got to be a knockout win.]

“My kid can give him maybe three good rounds.”

And that’s it. Your fighter’s next bout will go into the record books as a third-round knockout victory.

MY TECHNIQUES

I presume that most fake reviews are still relatively unsophisticated. Puff your client’s stuff, occasionally slam competitors. Those fakes are low-hanging fruit. My odds of finding bonafide reviews sink as the fake-a-loo pros try harder to fool me.

I ignore the reviews on the first page, assume that the biz or PR agency will make sure these are 4s and 5s. If they aren’t, I may have found a biz that doesn’t game reviews (or that bounced a check to the agency that does).

I click ‘poor’ and ‘terrible’ reviews, look at review dates. If they’re old, I might ignore them. If they’re new, I review the reviewer. Has he written many reviews? Does he complain for a reason, or because a hotel 86d him because his smuggled-in pit bull bit the maid who touched his smoldering hookah?

I presume that the most valuable reviews may be in the middle ranges; counterfeiters can’t significantly puff or sink star ratings with 3 star posts. I weed out 3 stars that may accidentally-on-purpose work in a plug for a competitor — e.g., Oh, I guess ABC was okay, but golly gee, my pal said XYZ is way better, and it’s on sale, too! — and study the rest, with an eye for structural product or facility problems mentioned by many reviewers. Thin hotel walls cost money to fix.

The safest bets may be facilities and products that have been widely reviewed for many months without recent, believable 1 and 2 star blackballs. I rarely find them, but I look.

HOW LONG WILL MY TECHNIQUES WORK?

Not much longer, and a candid fake-a-loo reviewer might convince me that they don’t work now for some products. I can’t see through a determined fake. A PR agency might carefully groom posting histories for a herd of thousands of fake accounts.

Some consumer benefits are short-lived. I got much more from online reviews when the ‘net was relatively new.

I see an opening for ‘old school’ media that shepherded consumers in the days before URLs and email. A company could patiently build a rep as a dispenser of honest advice, and profit thereby. Alas, many will think it more fruitful to pretend to be honest advice providers, and to cash out before being unmasked.

I apologize, younger readers: you were volunteered by birth into an often difficult world.

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