Published on March 7th, 20140
Fake It Until You Make It
“The ultimate in lavish living – we all want to make more money to live better, and with Resorts360, you can do both simultaneously,” reads a blog post.
“Friendly and expert periodontist. Boy am I glad I discovered Dr. Tetri!” read a review on CitySearch.com.
Are these reviews unbiased takes or did companies seek them out to create a good buzz for their products and services? Consumers may find it hard to tell. Faking positive reviews is just one of several methods companies use to keep a positive profile. There are others as well. Here’s a rundown we at TINA.org think consumers should be aware of so they don’t get fooled when evaluating a product or service.
Consumers are increasingly relying on online reviews when researching products or services. A 2013 Nielsen report found that 68% of survey respondents indicated that they trust consumer opinions posted online, ranking them third in terms of influence, and up seven percentage points from 2007.
By some estimates, though, as many as one in three online reviews are fake, and consumers have difficulty distinguishing real reviews from fake ones. Cornell researchers in 2011 took 400 fake positive reviews of Chicago hotels, “mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor.com reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.’’
And while it’s hard to spot the fakes, several websites have been under scrutiny for their reviews.
A 2011 study suggested that Amazon’s reviews leaned positive, and many of Amazon’s top “unbiased” reviewers receive free products from publishers and manufacturers.
A recent New York State investigation of Yelp found that 20% of the reviews on the site were fakes. Following the investigation, 19 companies producing the reviews agreed to stop posting the fakes and pay hefty fines.
Just last month, Taiwan’s FTC fined Samsung $340,000 for paying for fake comments bashing its competitors in Taiwanese forums. Also, BlackBerry denied involvement in a huge number of fake reviews of its BBM app being posted in the Android store.
Spamming the search results
This is another trick we’ve noticed while researching companies at TINA.org: When we search for “[company name] + scam,” blog posts that claim to be independent — but seem to always slant in favor of the company — often pop up. Is this a happy coincidence? Or is it clever pro-company boosters manipulating search results?
For example, when you search for “Resorts 360 scam” several posts appear but it’s hard to tell whether they are objective reviews or really someone from the company trying to attract new recruits or someone from a competitive MLM trying to get a reader to join them.
One blog post, on a Yahoo! Voices page, argues that Resorts360 is not a scam, but it’s unclear what evidence the author presents to support that claim. The same author has a handful of other posts on Yahoo!, many of them posted in quick succession, all of which conclude that a suspect company is not a scam.
Consumers who find these positive reviews in their search results may believe they’re unbiased, but the reviews may have really been written by someone connected to the company, or compensated to do it, or even by the company itself.
The Chewbacca defense
Even if it’s a one-sided issue, an illusion of debate can be powerful. On one episode of the show South Park, a cartoon version of trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran uses his famous “Chewbacca defense” to win a case. In lieu of addressing any points, Cochran instead rambles to the jury about the Star Wars character Chewbacca and other nonsensical topics. He ends his rant by claiming that because what he is saying doesn’t make sense, the case must not make sense either. Thus the jury must find the defendant guilty.
His argument, of course, does not make any sense.
Though perhaps over the top, the Chewbacca defense is an example of a “red herring” argument – something that is supposed to draw your attention away from the real issue. Companies trying to hide poor feedback will create “debate” over an unrelated issue and hope that consumers fail to notice the real problems over all the noise. They do this in television and print ads and even in the comments section at the bottom of stories or blog posts.
For example: On our own ad alert for CCW Safe that raised concerns about a commercial for its service, the company left a lengthy comment. CCW Safe’s comment mentions a number of issues TINA.org raised, but fails to refute any of them, instead agreeing with our take and simply repeating the company’s pitch. To a consumer researching CCW Safe, a quick glance may make it seem as though there’s a debate over the service. The debate isn’t real – it’s a red herring. But if marketers can convince a few consumers there’s some controversy, it’s a win for them.
This sort of drummed-up debate is especially common in political ads – cue the black and white images and a scary voiceover saying “if candidate X once tripped going up a staircase, how can we trust him with our children?” But advertisers are onto it too. When AT&T ran a series of ads attacking T-Mobile’s service this year, T-Mobile shot back asking, “If AT&T thought our network wasn’t great, why did they try to buy it?” And while that’s a question worth asking, AT&T trying to buy T-Mobile doesn’t address the issue whether T-Mobile’s service is better than AT&T’s service. It’s just a semi-related matter meant to draw attention away from the main argument.
Can you see the real me?
So, what’s a consumer to do? Think carefully when researching a company online. Be wary of one- and five-star reviews that slant too far in either direction. Keep in mind that while many reviews are honest takes by fellow consumers, not everything you read is honest or true and you don’t know everyone’s motivations. Did they get something for posting that blog, review, or comment? Is someone steering attention away from the very problem at hand? And, as with everything, trust people you know over strangers on the Internet.
TINA.org’s continued coverage of fake reviews can be found here.
Short for a web log, a blog is a kind of online diary that normal, everyday people can maintain to share details of their life or discuss their interests. A word of warning, though – a ‘blog’ that may appear to from a normal working mom in Nebraska, may actually be an advertising scheme by a company to promote its product(s) under the guise of a neutral, third-party endorsement.
Multi-Level Marketing – a way of distributing products or services in which the distributors earn income from their own retail sales and from retail sales made by their direct and indirect recruits.