How to tell the real reviews from the fakes

It’s very tempting to assume, when shopping online, that a four or five star rating on a product means that most people who bought it, liked it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Online reviewers may not be who they seem

The propagation of fake reviews has reached epidemic proportions, with some websites simply unable to distinguish between genuine critiques and manipulative entries placed there by manufacturers or the retailers themselves.

In the case of Amazon, a check by the consumer group Which? discovered that the vast majority of prominent reviews for headphones were either unverified or suspicious. It is a figure it says is rising exponentially, year on year.

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The fact that Amazon has actively removed 78,000 reviews in the last three years – in all probability the tip of the iceberg – puts the scale of the problem into context. Other retailers are less scrupulous, taking no action at all to remove bogus endorsements.

It is very easy to manipulate the ratings for almost anything online, if you are so minded. Many sites accept endorsements from anyone, with no need to prove that their opinion is unbiased.

There are many reasons for “playing the system”, and unfettered dishonesty is only one of them. So many goods on Amazon are offered at a discount in return for favourable reviews that a whole ecosystem of “feeder” websites exists to facilitate them. These include Vipon, which offers sellers the chance to increase their Amazon rankings thanks to what it calls a “highly engaged audience who is always on the lookout for a great deal”.

Snagshout and Product Elf offer similar deals, and shoppers are drawn to them all on the promise of a better deal than they might have otherwise have procured. A positive review – not necessarily reflective of their experience with the product – is a small price to pay.

Amazon even has its own discounts-for-reviews service, which it calls Amazon Vine. It gives its “most trusted reviewers” free products from participating sellers in return for what it hopes will be their honest opinion. The sellers pay Amazon for this privilege. Unlike the third-party services, you can’t enrol yourself in Vine – you have to be invited by Amazon, which says it selects people based on “the quality and helpfulness of their reviews as judged by other Amazon customers”.

Vine reviews are marked as such on Amazon’s pages, so you can make your own judgement on their veracity. But those placed by participants in other services may carry no such red flag.

This is especially true of outlawed “review factory” groups on Facebook, which offer incentives for positive reviews. Which? has exposed these in the past, and while it has an axe to grind here – its business model is built on selling subscriptions to its own reviews – it is undeniable that they erode trust in the system.

Amazon disputes the organisation’s findings, and says that most bogus reviews are computer generated. It uses algorithms to remove them, but it must battle against a rising tide unscrupulous businesses with a seemingly limitless stock of workarounds.

Yet it’s not hard to confound a computer with common sense; it takes only a few seconds to look beyond the headline rating to make a value judgement of a product’s true worth. The best rules of thumb are to disregard any five-star review with only a scant justification, and to be sceptical of those not from a “verified” purchaser. Beware too of products with an unfeasibly large number of reviews.

The old adage of no smoke without fire holds true here: genuinely good products don’t need to resort to manipulation.