Can you trust an online review?

August 29th, 2012

In the fall of 2010, Todd Rutherford launched, a marketing service for self-published authors that provided book reviews for cash. Soon, he was making $28,000 a month writing reviews, almost all of which were exceedingly positive.

There’s a particularly needling kind of buyer’s remorse that comes with buying a bad book. Not only does it feel like a waste of money, it sucks away valuable hours, sometime even days, from your limited tenure on this planet. All that time you spent reading the Twilight series, just to see what the hype was about? Gone. (Obviously you should have been knee deep in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.) But without reading a book, how do you know for sure whether or not it will be good? Well, you can read the back cover or inside flap for a summary or critical acclaim, but these days, the thing to do is to turn to the opinions of your supposed peers – in other words, online reviews.

But according to Bing Liu at the University of Chicago, as many as one third of all online reviews may be false. At the 2012 World Wide Web conference, Liu and two other experts reported on their research using mathematical programs to detect fake reviews. They had the most success spotting groups of fake reviewers as opposed to individuals, identifying group spam behavior indicators such as:

  • Posting many reviews during a short time period
  • Ratings deviating far from the norm (so writing a bunch of 5-star reviews on a formerly 1-star product, for example)
  • Similarity of reviews within the group (people in the group borrowing each other’s work)
  • Similarity of individual review histories (people borrowing their own previous work)
  • Reviewing early – often fake reviews will be the first ones posted

Language also provides clues one can use to detect fake reviews. For example, truthful reviews use “I” more; deceptive reviews use it less. Truthful reviews also use more specific and concrete terms, while deceptive reviews use general terms and go heavy on superlatives.

In early 2011, Rutherford’s success reached a stumbling block; after an unsatisfied client drew attention to his site and its practices, Google suspended Rutherford’s advertising account, and Amazon took down many of his reviews. Today, he works as an RV salesman, but Rutherford hopes to soon revive his business by using Twitter as a new platform.


On the bright side, fake reviews can also be a comedy goldmine. Have you ever considered buying a three-wolf moon shirt, a jar of uranium ore, or a book about random numbers? Maybe you should.

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