BBB: No guarantee that online reviews written by shoppers

11/24/2012 7:42 AM

11/24/2012 7:47 AM

Gone are the days when holiday shoppers strolled through downtown sidewalks, peering at the elaborate displays in storefront windows. Today’s shopper is more likely to surf Internet sites for bargains.

The Better Business Bureau advises bargain hunters that local merchants still offer good deals for holiday shoppers. Additionally, the brick-and-mortar stores around the corner are still going to be there, with easy access, should you have an issue with the item you purchased.

For those who wish to rely on online retailers, reading customer reviews of those merchants’ products should be done with a great deal of caution. There is no guarantee that those reviews were actually written by consumers. While the online review practice has become increasingly popular with the public, the phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by the unscrupulous.

A scientist at the University of Illinois recently found that 80 percent of reviews on give 4 stars or higher. Yet most people do not bother to formally express their opinion unless they have a criticism. The question then becomes: Why are so many reviewers motivated to praise these products?

One answer is that for-hire writers can easily post glowing reviews about a product on retailer sites. Conversely, negative reviews can easily be planted by a product’s competitors. Reviews on retail, travel and services websites should be weighed with this in mind.

Nevertheless, a Nielsen survey released this year found that 70 percent of consumers say that they trust online reviews. That number is up from 55 percent just four years earlier.

It’s impossible to know how much online review evaluation is legitimate. The BBB urges consumers to keep several things in mind when reading online product and company reviews:

• Look at the reviewer’s name. Names that include two or three numbers at the end may be the product of robotic review-writing software. Also consider whether the reviewer’s name resembles a business or product name.
• Watch out for overly-glowing subject lines or over-the-top language within the review. Phrases like, “This product is amazing!!!” or “This changed my life!” are dead giveaways. Look as well for repeated use of the product’s complete name and detailed description. People don’t say things like: “The Model 837.5 with the upgraded 6.9 doo-dad just gives outstanding performance compared with all their competitors!”
• Strange sentence structure is a tip-off. Watch out for reviews that sound like they came from a product’s description in a catalog. Try cutting and pasting suspicious sounding sentences into a search engine and see whether they come from other sites.
• Blind product loyalty can be suspicious. Phrases favored by marketing pros, like “integrates seamlessly,” or “this is the kind of product you’ve been looking for,” were likely written by a writer pushing a product in an advertisement for that item.
• All or nothing opinions can indicate a planted review. Sure, a consumer can have a strong opinion about a product, but excessive pro or con views can sometimes indicate a fake review.

The bottom line is that deciphering product reviews is not easy.

The more reviews you read, the better you will get at determining which are legitimate and which are not.

More reliable than online reviews are the product reviews that can be found in a truly objective source like Consumer’s Union’s Consumer Reports magazine.

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