Online Reviews are Great . . . Maybe

When you check product or service reviews online, whether at retailer sites or through rating services like Yelp!, how can you tell if they are honest or just a lot of hype? You can’t for sure. But there are ways to parse what’s being said and maybe get a better view of the purchase you’re considering.

If you are the proprietor of, say, a restaurant, how likely are you to ask friends and relatives to post glittering reviews of your establishment? Plenty. How can any normal person resist the temptation to juice the results unless their ethical standards are so high as to make Nelson Mandela jealous.

Ah, you say, at least I can trust the negative reviews. Not so fast. How do you know the competition isn’t writing bad reviews?

According to an article in the Bottom Line Personal, February 15, 2012 edition, 80 percent of Internet shoppers change their minds about what they’re spending their money on after reading online reviews.

In the article, Jeffrey Hancock, a professor at Cornell University’s communications department, recommends that readers look for certain indicators that are most likely to indicate a legitimate review. His tips are the result of a recent study.

  • The review makes reference to space, size or distance. For example, the distance a hotel or restaurant is from another site. That a product was large or small. That a hotel room is tiny. Lacking distance or dimension references is common among fabricated reviews.
  • When you see a reference on a site that indicates how many shoppers found a particular review helpful, look for ones with high percentages..
  • Go to other sites and see if their reviews are fairly consistent. If they are incompatible, be suspicious.
  • “Beware of reviews offering strong opinions but few specifics,” says Hancock. And without specifics, you cannot tell if what bothered a particular reviewer is something that would be important to you.
  • Be most willing to trust reviews from folks whom the site confirms as verified customer. For example, Amazon (a company of which I am not fond for a series of unrelated ethical reasons) labels a review “Amazon Verified Purchaser,” at least you know that the reviewer actually bought the product. Some travel web sites that book hotel reservations allow only purchasers to review hotels. Trip Advisor, on the other hand, has no such requirement.
  • I always read the negative reviews looking for specifics, even if there are mostly good ones. It could be that what displeased just a few people just might be the flaw that you are trying to avoid.
  • According to Jeffrey Hancock, you can pretty much trust the overall score if at least 50 people reviewed the product or service.
  • Balanced reviews are not always honest. Savvy fakers will sometimes give four out of five stars and mention a minor flaw just to look legit.
  • Hancock warns that rating sites for doctors are not yet up to snuff. So don’t trust them. I prefer to use healthcare providers or trustworthy friends for referrals. If you live in a city that is serviced by the Checkbook nonprofit, as I do, that’s a good place to start as well.
  • Don’t trust reviews from folks who are labeled as among the site’s “Top Reviewers.” According to Hancock, marketers target these reviewers with freebies. If the marketers’ products don’t get good reviews, the handouts halt. So how do you know?  Look at other reviews by these reviewers. They should be balanced fairly well between positive, middling and negative reviews. On Amazon, click on “See all my reviews.” If the review is labeled “Amazon Vine” it means the product just sprouted up in the reviewer’s backyard; that is, the reviewers got the item free.

There are no guarantees that what you read is what you get. So caveat emptor for products, services, and reviews is a good idea.

For more stuff on this topic, visit You can perform an automatic evaluation of  Trip Advisor reviews there. The site intends to expand this service soon.