Fake Customer Reviews, Bad Product Reviews: What to Do?

I really enjoyed this morning’s webinar with Andy Chen of PowerReviews and Jay Gordman of NetShops. (If you missed it, you can catch the Q&A recap here, unfortunately we do not have an audio replay due to technical difficulties with recording). Today I want to expand a bit on fake reviews and bad reviews.

Liar, Liar?

We all know how easy it would be for a marketer, manufacturer or etailer to post fake reviews of a product – whether positive for their own products or negative for competing products. This is one of the challenges of not only building trust online, but cultivating authentic communities online. A reviewer could fall into any of the following categories:

  • Manufacturers, etailers and others submitting fake positive reviews
  • Competitors submitting fake negative reviews
  • Customers with an axe to grind, even exaggerating
  • Anyone paid to write reviews for the product on popular sites
  • Customers writing a review in order just to get that 25% off their next order
  • Authentic brand/product evangelists

Haven’t we all read a review that goes something like this…

“WidgetXYZ is the best thing to happen since sliced bread. After I bought it, all my friends wanted one too! It’s so quiet and fast, and I can keep all my Widgetizing in one place. I’ve tried lots of other widget solutions, and none can compare. I don’t know how I ever made it before I found WidgetXYZ. I can’t wait for version 2.0!!!”

Perhaps users would this as thinly veiled review-spam — or “adverview”? (I’m hoping to coin a term here…) Especially with the growth of paid blog posts this is probably a bigger issue than we think. But how do we really know? Maybe this is legitimate. Either way, what’s more important is if the review is of value to someone trying to make a purchase decision.

Social Review Moderation

Discussed in the webinar were some ways site owners can combat problems associated with user-generated content including traditional required registration / site login and internal moderation and user-moderation. Community moderation can be effective, but Jason brought up a good point regarding his observation with Digg’s digg-and-bury system. Often times the voter is not thinking whether the story itself is an accurate account of user experience (and who knows for sure?), rather it’s emotional “I don’t like what he said” or “I don’t like this person.”

What I like about Amazon’s “Did you find this review helpful?” system is that the wording implies that people are voting whether or not the review had an influence on their product discovery and purchase decision. Another approach I found on FitnessInfomercialReview was to ask the community flat-out whether they believed the review was real or fake. Here’s an example for the pilates machine (link removed due to 404) I bought on impulse after catching the last 4 minutes of the infomercial (yes, I admit it). Definitely product reviews played a huge part in a my impulse decision (making it only semi-impulse), as did comparison shopping (I bought it new off eBay and saved 86%).

Did I care whether other people thought the reviews were real or fake? Not really, it’s so subjective. What I found humorous when testing the voting system was the question “Are you sure this is a fake review?” (Oh, hold on, let me get my Magic 8 Ball). However, if real vs. fake voting somehow pushes the most relevant reviews to the top (this product had 4 pages of results I’m not going to sift through), then having some way of promoting the best reviews to the top is a good idea.

Negative Reviews Help The Decision Making Process

There is a certain chain of electronics stores here in Canada that every time you go, if you ask a salesperson about a product, the salesperson will say “this is the [product model] I have at home and it’s very good, no problems. I use it all the time.” After you hear that a few times from different sales people, you sort of lose confidence in the whole customer service team. And it doesn’t help you make a purchase decision. Perhaps it encourages you to buy the cheapest item because the salespeople will always praise the weekly special.

The truth is, having some negative reviews actually increases the overall credibility of the product’s feedback overall. I appreciated that the majority of reviews for the pilates machine mentioned that there weren’t enough spring clips, and one that was updated after a year of use noting the wear. These sounded real to me, and I was impacted that the users were satisfied with the equipment despite its shortcomings. Like Jason said regarding his XBOX purchase, he actively sought out negative reviews.

Love It, However would love it more if more clips.

26 Feb 2007 – Laurie of Alberta, Canada writes:

I have only used the machine twice at this point, but have only had it 4 days. I love it! I do wish however that it would of came with more clips as I find it very time consuming switching the springs etc. with the video without having to pause it.

Review Quality: Real | Fake (25 voted real, 7 voted fake)

Etailers – Don’t Rely On Reviews Alone

What needs to work in tandem with reviews for maximizing conversions is providing clear shipping, customer service and return policies near the reviews and making them easy to find through internal site search. I’d bet most people are willing to take a shot with a product when faced with a mix of stellar and less-than-stellar reviews if they’re confident that the merchant will co-operate should there be a problem.

Manufacturers – Don’t Eschew a Negative Review

I loved Jason’s analogy of “bad combover syndrome,” where manufacturers won’t do anything about their product’s shortcomings unless they are straight-up told about it. The problem is many manufacturers are unwilling to hear anything less than raves about their product, they just want to be stroked. The reality is, though their head is in the sand, people can still see the combover and they definitely still have their opinions. Negative reviews present a huge OPPORTUNITY for improving products, as end-users are even better experts on a product than the engineers – they are the ones with the everyday experience. Manufacturers and service providers should be actively seeking out negative reviews with a dedicated reputation management team appointed to monitor social media (hang tight for some follow-up posts on this next week).

So all-in-all, we never really know which reviews are authentic or contrived and etailers and manufacturers cannot control user opinion. Hopefully we all can see the positive side of allowing wide range of opinion to be expressed on our own ecommerce websites and on the general review sites and other social media. A mix of reviews builds trust, can increase confidence and actually improve product quality provided you offer users customer support, listen to their voice, and take action where you can to improve customer experience.


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