It's a Jungle Out There: Spotting Fake Reviews

by Tom Harnish on 28 January 2011 1 comment
Photo: Nao Iizuka

It’s an old admonishment, but now, more than ever, you really can’t believe everything you read. Exploring the jungle of the web, I’ve found a lot of places that look intriguing, but are actually traps for the unwary.

No, I’m not talking about poisonous multi-level marketing come-ons, or religious or political voodoo diatribes. I’m talking about reviews touting Amazon products, forum discussions endorsing hotels or restaurants, and even blog posts offering apparently sensible advice — all written by people who were paid to say it. In fact, what you read may be someone else’s words, stolen, rearranged, and used with new meaning to fit the site or circumstance. (See also: 6 Ways to Spot Work-at-Home Job Scams)

I was looking at freelance jobs offered at vWorker, Elance, and oDesk. As I thrashed my way through the sites, chopping away at the underbrush so I could see the treasures, I found all kinds of task-oriented work such as designing logos, building websites, collecting data, transcribing documents, and writing stories. But, like any public market, you may find both jewels and junk.

One employer was looking for someone to write 20 "articles" for a shopping website with titles such as “I’m looked (sic) to buy the best LCD TV.” The writer, paradoxically, had to promote a certain model and brand, not ask for advice, and make it appear to be a genuine question from a genuine forum member.

So how can you protect yourself?

If someone’s forum post or comment sounds more like a sales pitch than a question, search for that person's online name, and see if he's infested other places on the web with their poison. Include "scam" in your search, and see what pops up.

Whenever you log onto the Internet, imagine yourself as an explorer in an information jungle. Before you is a whole world of exciting places to explore, but many are not what they seem. Take precautions, and it can be a wonderful visit. 

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Brian

You'll have to stay with me on this one, but.... I just sat through a local television interview on a special event going on today. The reporter came in during the break, interviewed a few people, said a few words himself behind the camera, then left. He really has no idea what happened here today, except for what he was told, yet he reported or reviewed it. That might be classified as a fake review (of events) to me because he reviewed a few people involved, then wrapped a story around it using his own words. Does it hurt anyone that he did it that way? Probably not, but what if he really promotes the heck out of the story, and causes someone to join in next year, investing time and money, only to find out it wasn't as good as he said? Would that make it harmful?

Now I don't see anything wrong with what he just did, and certainly didn't expect him to sit through the entire day. But my thought was that fake reviews online might just be a subset of what's been going on in the offline world for many years. I highly doubt that the reviews you see in magazines were actually intensively reviewed by the authors (outside of Consumer Reports). They are probably, for the most part rewriting copy given to them from product developers.

In the online world, you don't even have to go to Google to find potentially fake reviews. Do we really know that all of the reviews written on Amazon product pages were written by owners of the products, or could the product manufacturer have hired people to write glowing reviews? You just don't know.

Didn't mean to write this much, but this article just made me think a lot about reviews in general, and how you can see a review in everything, and not just online. The old saying, "buyer beware" should probably come into play, no matter what it is you are reading, watching, or hearing. Do your own research, from several sources, to find out the real truth.