Rhodri Marsden: Are online consumer reviews really trustworthy?
Wednesday 21 October 2009
The internet is a fearsome battle of sentiments. We're encouraged to weigh in and reveal how we feel about everything from forced repatriation to Moulinex food processors, and the sheer tonnage of opinion amassing out there is terrifying. Indeed, working out a way of correctly gauging our precise feelings on any topic has become a hotly pursued holy grail amongst web visionaries. But until that's been accomplished (possibly never) the public's online perception of, well, the public's online perception will continue to be craftily massaged. As we trust a complete stranger's opinion marginally more than we trust a company or body invested in selling us a product or an idea, one review or opinion posted on a website can carry disproportionate weight.
It's been illegal in the EU for companies to masquerade as consumers online for almost two years, but the law is impossible to enforce, and the practice is still rampant. After all, if it's easy for me to go online and pretend to be a woman (I'm not saying I do, honestly, it's just a hypothetical example) it's not hard for an employee to pretend to be a delighted customer – also known as astroturfing. Even if it's not done directly, it can still be done by proxy by offering incentives to others; those people's opinions may well be genuine, but urging them to eulogise online still creates a distortion. Of course, over-hyping the positive qualities of a surround-sound speaker system isn't as serious an issue as, say, the Chinese government paying bloggers to exalt their economic policies, but it's equally confusing for anyone seeking the truth.
Some of us are getting better at spotting fakery, but a new survey commissioned by reevoo.com shows that while 77 per cent of us rely on reviews or ratings to make purchases, 44 per cent of us aren't aware that said reviews might be bogus. New laws will continue to battle deception; for example, from 1 December, bloggers and tweeters in the US are duty bound to mention in their reviews if they receive a product for free. But compliance will still rely on honesty, a quality not over-abundant on the web. Reevoo.com advises us to beware of over-enthusiastic reviews, and to look out for an absence of negative ones (although online stores are no more obliged to show these than we are to mention embarrassing drunken incidents on our CVs). So, as ever, the most reliable word of mouth is the one where you can actually see someone's lips moving, and you're pretty sure they haven't been paid to move them.
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