Simon Read: When it comes to online reviews, you need to know who's reviewing
Unless you're a fan of crime fiction, you may not have heard of RJ Ellory. He's a decent enough author and I've certainly whiled away a few hours reading his stuff.
But judging by some of the reviews posted online at Amazon, some people think his books are much more than simple page-turners. One reviewer said: "One of the most moving books I've ever read."
Another reviewer was even more effusive. After describing one of Ellory's thrillers as "a modern masterpiece" the fan continued: "Whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul."
Powerful stuff and, no doubt, postitive enough to persuade some people to buy the books. But there's one problem with the reviews. They – and many others – were actually written by the author of the books under a series of pseudonyms.
Now you may think that posting positive reviews is a pretty harmless bit of self-puffery. You may even excuse Ellory then posting heavily negative reviews about many of his rivals' books as "all's fair in business".
But it's not fair and it's not harmless. Apart from the fact that it could damage the career of a rival, such stories of false reviews undermines the whole system of trust in what's published online. If one review is a pack of lies, then all may be.
The same is true over at TripAdvisor where there have been several reported instances of hotel owners writing bogus bad reviews of rival establishments to try and put them out of business.
The process is shabby and underhand and leaves consumers with nowhere to turn for honest information about books or hotels or anything else they are considering spending their money on.
Traditionally, of course, such word-of-mouth reviews would have come from friends or family. But the internet has made it too easy to get reams of information and opinions about, well, anything. So it seems logical to go online to get information when we want it rather than wait until we see people we know who may offer a more useful opinion.
The fact is that even honest online reviews can be misleading. Unless you share the standards – or interests – of the reviewer, their five-star hotel could be your one-star nightmare.
In the travel trade they call that the "squashy fruit" principle. That comes into play when hard-to-please guests mark accommodation down simply because an orange – or other fruit – may be less than fresh.
Most of us won't be so fussy but may be put off a perfectly decent place by a needlessly harsh review from a stranger.
So having established that we can't trust online reviews, I'd like to welcome a new website this week that offer the chance to read reviews of financial advisers.
VouchedFor.co.uk has been set up by ex-banker Adam Price. His philosophy is simple: "There's huge demand for good financial advice, but people don't know who to put their trust in," he says. He hopes his site will help people find trustworthy advisers.
He's not in it for altruism, of course. He'll make money by charging advisers for their listings. But, crucially, reviewers – customers of advisers – will be able to use the site for free.
They'll be able to search for an independent financial adviser by specialism or town or postcode. In that sense, the site offers no more than the existing unbiased.co.uk which has thousands of advisers on its site.
By comparison, VouchedFor has –to date – just 250 advisers. But Adam hopes that will grow quickly as people become aware of the site and its reviews and scoring, based on quality, service and value for money.
But that raises the question of trust. With underhand tactics and unfair reviews all over the internet, how can VouchedFor ensure that its listings are trustworthy?
"We publish all reviews – good or bad (unless they contain spam or abuse), and give advisers a right of reply," says Adam. "Moreover, unlike most review sites, we verify the identity of every reviewer."
He also asks IFAs to confirm that reviewers are clients and the site looks for odd patterns in our data to root out dodgy reviewers. "Ultimately, we would seek investigative support from the IFA's compliance officer if we suspected an IFA had misled us."
Getting tough with reviewers before they cause damage is sensible. But we'll have to see whether that helps the site to be a success. If it is, it could prove a powerful ally for consumers looking for decent advice.
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