Not long after turning 40, I noticed a smattering of small moles popping up around my eyes. Being fair-skinned and nervous about melanoma, I visited my doctor, who removed most of them. But he was reluctant to tackle the few that were close to my eye, and told me to see an ophthalmologist, triggering another dilemma — which one should I pick?
I turned to the Internet for recommendations, since friends didn’t know and family was far away. The top search results were mostly posted by the eye center itself, but I found only one review site, with four really positive comments, and one very negative one.
It was the nearest to me, so I discounted the negative review as a crank and drove over. While the procedure went off without a hitch, I wasn’t thrilled with the doctor’s performance. His bedside manner was abrupt — he seemed more concerned with the insurance than the procedure — and I experienced a lot of unexpected bruising afterwards, which he didn’t warn me about.
A few days later, a neighbor asked about my fading black eye, and when I mentioned the doctor’s name, she told me she also had a really bad experience with him. Of course, I wish she had told me earlier — I could have avoided the black eye. But I also thought: Who wrote those other positive reviews?
And then it hit me. Were they even real?
Like me, most people refer to Yelp, Amazon or recommendation sites to check a store or service before buying that gadget, trying that bakery or even picking a doctor. We also increasingly poll Facebook or Twitter for opinions and advice, but the Internet was supposed to promise democracy: instead of relying on expert-opinions, which are often backed by agendas themselves, we can base decisions on the experiences of everyday people.
Since my bruising encounter with the ophthalmologist, though, I began to question that assumption. In spite of all the available data, are we flying blind by relying on online reviews? Because, as I found out, more likely than not, fake reviews have cluttered review sites, diluting complaints by artificially adding glowing praise.
I’ve always assumed reviews aren’t always genuine. But the practice of coordinated, false online-campaigns, called “astroturfing” to reflect fake grass-roots of reviews, is one that New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman cracked down on last month.
In a year-long sting operation, dubbed “Operation Clean Turf,” Schneiderman and his agents posed as the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop plagued by negative, unfair reviews, contacting firms offering search engine optimization. They asked if the companies could help write phony reviews to drown out the naysayers, according to the New York Times. And all too often, the answer was a resounding yes.
Some of the companies hired freelance writers — who lived as far away as Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe — some for as little as $1 to lavish buckets of praise about stores they had never visited in countries they’d never stepped foot in. In other cases, companies bribed customers to write phony reviews. For example, U.S. Coachways, a charter bus company on Staten Island, routinely offered $50 gift certificates for the hassle. When real customers started to criticize their phony review operation, they even went online to counter the arguments.
In 2011, U.S. Coachway CEO Edward Telmany wrote to his staff warning that negative reviews were hurting its business, according to Scheiderman. “We get bashed online,” he wrote, according to The Guardian. “We are losing money from this.” Telmany then told his employees, as well as hired freelancers, to begin to write positive reviews.
“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” Schneiderman told the New York Times. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”
In total, 19 companies — including a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club — were caught in the practice of astroturfing, and must pay fines between $2,500 and $100,000 for more than $350,000 in penalties.
A fake review of a yogurt shop may ruin your dessert, but companies the investigation uncovered — like dentists, lawyers and even an ultrasound clinic — may be far more damaging to unsuspecting consumers.
“Companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note,” Schneiderman told The Guardian. “Astroturfing is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”
It’s pretty clear why companies do it: money. Businesses game the system to increase sales, because consumers trust reviews, and they’re the one who benefit, or want their friends to benefit.
According to Weber Shandwick, consumer review influenced 65 percent of gadget-buying adults by choosing a brand they hadn’t previously considered.
“The increasing impact of consumer reviews on sales means that marketers must learn how to effectively manage the flood of online opinion engulfing shoppers,” Bradford Williams, president of Weber Shandwick’s North American technology group, said. “Online user reviews are transforming buying decisions.”
In 2011, Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School professor who studies consumer decision making, wondered if an army of reviewers could transform a restaurant’s fate, where expert critics once wielded the power to launch or shutdown a business completely. In Seattle, he analyzed more than 310,000 Yelp reviews and compared them to the revenue receipts for every restaurant in operation from 2003 and 2009. The conclusion: a one-star increase in rating on Yelp translated into a five to nine percent boost in revenue.
“As crowdsourced information becomes increasingly prevalent, so do incentives for businesses to game the system,” Luca wrote in the report.
According to a Cornell study, that same correlation can be found in hotel sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor, where consumers increasingly rely on reviews to make vacation decisions. Researchers found that a one-point increase — on a five-point scale — allowed a hotel to increase its price by about 10 percent without suffering any loss of customers. In other words, the better the rating, the more you can charge for bigger profits.
Those advantages have fueled the rise in fraudulent reviews, and in 2013, Yelp admitted, a quarter of the reviews could be fake, according to the BBC.
“The problem is definitely more widespread than the Attorney General’s investigation,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s just one small piece of the puzzle.”
The rise of phony reviews is a rich irony, considering that the origins of consumer research were to ferret out the very problem that exists today.
Before the Internet and regulatory laws, consumers turned to advocacy groups before making buying decisions. A hundred years ago, Good Housekeeping began to test products and issue consumer alerts. One of its first alerts, in 1902, warned against “injurious food adjuncts” such as formaldehyde, which was then used as a preservative in milk, cream and even baby food. The substance was banned six years later.
Arguably the most popular consumer watchdog, Consumer Reports, emerged in the 1930s to promote and protect the interests of the buying public. In addition to expert reviews, it also spearheaded the idea of polling readers and publishing the results, which garnered a loyal 400,000 reader circulation by 1950.
Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, who Time Magazine called “U.S.’s toughest customer,” gained initial fame on the popularity of consumer advocacy. After authoring the book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” in 1965, he worked to pass critical motor vehicle safety laws, demonstrating the power consumer advocacy had in transforming an industry.
But when the Internet revolution hit, Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups with deep roots in print faced competition by review start-ups. Yelp launched in mid-2005, and by 2008, generated over 10 million visitors each month, according to The Atlantic. The site became such a popular destination that it would take 42 years to read all the words from its reviews.
With consumers so heavily trusting sites to make decisions, and businesses depending on them as part of their marketing strategy, companies have re-doubling efforts to keep the faith — or risk eroding the very trust the public puts in them.
To protect readers from being astroturfed, websites have turned to algorithms to help filter and flag phony reviews, according to The Atlantic. Yelp, for example, constantly scans entries, regulating suspicious ones to a “filtered” page, effectively de-emphasizing them but still letting visitors read them. But, of course, algorithms make mistakes, and often it flags legitimate reviews and leaves phony ones intact. Some businesses have complained, alleging that the filter can incorrectly remove all of their most positive reviews, leaving them with a lowly one- or two-stars average.
TripAdvisor also uses algorithms to flag questionable reviews. But instead sending them to a filtered page, it takes a more drastic step and labels guilty companies with a large red stamp of disapproval, as well as bumping them down a few pages. It’s worse than deleting the company outright, since customers can still see the offending action in their searches.
Amazon, meanwhile, chooses to take a more positive approach, emphasizing reviews that have actually bought the item with a “verified purchase” tag.
Consumers, too, are adjusting their strategies and taking a hard look at the source and language of reviews to see if they’re real, an attack or a bought-and-paid endorsement. “There is little incentive for a business to leave a mediocre review,” Luca wrote in his report “Fake It Till You Make It.” “Hence, the distribution of fake reviews should tend to be more extreme than that of legitimate reviews.” It’s like scoring in the Olympics — throw out the highest and the lowest and average the rest.
That’s exactly the experience that Joan, a traveler who describes her technique as a “structured methodology,” told me. “I first knock out the extremes — insipidly good reviews and hypercritical bad reviews — then establish the credibility and reasonableness of the reviewers by reading other reviews they’ve written.”
Others say they are cautious of reviews rife with spelling errors or try too hard to be “folksy.” That advice resonated with me, because one eye center reviewer said, being new to the area, he was so thrilled to find such a great eye doctor, but didn’t say anything about the facility.
It’s also a good idea to consider the seriousness of the service or product you need. For example, Emma, a young mom of three, said she only used reviews for smartphone apps, “because it’s often hard to tell what the app is really like and what it even does.” For bigger purchases, she only consults friends who know her and what she’d like because, “other people are crazy.”
Many consumers use reviews as part of the process for vetting services and professionals. Portland-based resident Kayleigh said, “It’s probably a good idea if people are more diligent and do more investigation rather than just take a review from someone who may or may not be real.” Kayleigh relied on reviews for buying products, books and movies, but also bases her decision on conversations with friends and critical reviews.
In 1998, Los Angeles mandated that restaurants publicly post their hygiene grades. Restaurants with impeccable kitchen often placed the “A” on their front door. Poor performers who received a “C” often put it in the bottom corner of the window, behind a plant or shrub. But the impact on business was immediate: eateries with an A grade earned five percent more revenue than previously, and the worst offenders suffered a stunning drop of up to 20 percent, according to a Stanford and the University of Maryland study.
But in 2010, when New York City implemented a similar policy, reports did not show the same results. Why? According to Luca, our methods for deciding which restaurants to eat at have changed over those 15 years — and instead of looking for signs on doors, we check menus, photos and reviews ahead of time — often online.
“People aren’t looking at doors the way they used to,” Luca told The Atlantic. “The digital version of posting grades on doors is trying to post on something like Yelp.”
This year, San Francisco began to work with Yelp to add restaurant inspections into its reviews, and a dozen more cities, such as Austin, Philadelphia and Chicago, are looking at following suit. If the experiment takes off, Yelp has high hopes to consolidate the national standard for restaurant inspections into a uniform method.
Reviews influence us to take the risk of trying or choosing to pass and move on. They sell books and music and influence the movies we watch, the appliances we buy and the clothes on our backs. And they increasingly play a role in the doctors and other professionals we select.
Still, fake reviews have the potential to undermine the credibility of the system. But the sky isn’t falling… yet. Most people understand the basic challenge inherent in relying on others in that way, but are ultimately accepting of the good and the bad and dive in anyway.
While we’ll likely see more investigations into the authenticity of reviews, it won’t completely resolve the issue. “I’m not sure if this is the right path,” 48-year-old Tim said to me. “If they can effectively weed out ‘deceptive’ reviews, I’m all for it, but it could just lead to ‘cat-and mouse’ escalation with no net benefit in the end.”
Businesses are realizing the bitter pill of bad reviews is best handled straight on, rather than trying to bury it. For example, the charter bus company cited in the investigation would have benefited by responding to reviews calling out its poor service. But by covering them up, it didn’t solve the problem, and actually created a new one: damaged credibility, which is even harder to repair.
I didn’t write a review of my eye care center experience, but I did relate it to friends and family. When it comes to seeking advice on purchases, we have more tools at our fingertips than ever before, but the warning “buyer beware” still reigns supreme. ♦