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Inside the Business of Online Reviews For Hire 121

Posted by timothy
from the these-hose-clamps-saved-my-life-and-my-marriage dept.
Rick Zeman writes "Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service. The New York Times tells of the rise and fall of the founder of one such hired third party service who had has been so successful planting paid fake reviews that he no longer trusts any online review. He should know. Because of him and his kind, it's estimated that one third of online reviews are fake."
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Inside the Business of Online Reviews For Hire

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  • by fustakrakich (1673220) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @12:46PM (#41129923) Journal

    Give us a link that doesn't require registration.. aieet?

    • Give us a link that doesn't require registration.. aieet?

      FWIW, It worked for me.

      I get past most of these semi-porous paywalls with a combo of firefox add-ons:

      RefControl (for most it is sufficient to set the referrer to http://google.com/ [google.com])
      CS Lite (block all cookies from the paywalled site)

      I also have noscript, Ghostery, RequestPolicy and RedirectRemover installed but they usually aren't necessary to get past the paywall.

  • Kind of inconvenient (Score:5, Informative)

    by Glarimore (1795666) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @12:47PM (#41129925)
    When the only article in the story is requires a login. Next, please.
  • about the marketing

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo&noredirect=1 [youtube.com]

    "You are satan's spawn. Just kill yourself"

    • Bill Hicks inspired me deeply. I miss him and can think of no better angry poet. Excellent stuff.

      And to the louts expressing satisfaction at his death, Bill Hicks forgives you. Now fuck off!
  • Only 1/3? (Score:5, Funny)

    by aaarrrgggh (9205) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @12:48PM (#41129935)

    You only learn from reviews what something can't do, not what it can. I usually only look at negative reviews myself, and possibly fact-check against positive reviews. A product has to be truly great to garner all positive reviews. ...like Sonos-- check them out at Sonos.com, or buy at your local Target store! It changed my life! ;-)

    • by Kohath (38547) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:09PM (#41130111)

      Mine was damaged in shipping. One star.

    • by swillden (191260)

      You only learn from reviews what something can't do, not what it can. I usually only look at negative reviews myself, and possibly fact-check against positive reviews.

      I find value in both positive and negative reviews, but I think the key is to go in looking for facts, not testimonials. "This product is great!" isn't useful at all, and my eyes just skip right over it. Specific unexpected problems or benefits are helpful, as are detailed comparisons with competing products. Average ratings are also helpful, but only to quickly narrow the candidate list, and only if there are enough reviews.

      I do have some hope for Google's integration of Google+ with their review syst

  • by Trevin (570491) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @12:49PM (#41129937) Homepage
    I've seldom trusted consumer reviews, not because they might be fake, but because "consumers" often lack enough experience with large enough numbers of competing products for their opinions to hold any weight. When I'm looking for reviews of a product, I want professional reviews from journalists who are dedicated to researching the genre.
    • by mlts (1038732) *

      I'd like both: Professional reviews from people who are experts, as well as people who may or may not know what the heck they are doing.

      Here is the problem: You force better real-life identification on a site, a shill company still can get around it.

      There is only one real way to get "honest" reviews, and that is to use the time-tested PGP concept of the web of trust:

      Have a site that allows you to post a review. Friends will see the review, and depending on how much credibility they give you, it will eith

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "Professional" reviews are often bought too. For example, magazines reviewing products only if the manufacturer buys ad space. Since the publication doesn't want to risk their income (ads is where the money is, not sales) the reviews will always be overwhelmingly positive, and any negative aspects will be ignored or downplayed. The reviewer may also receive personal kickbacks eg. by being allowed to keep (and resell) the product.

    • by nukenerd (172703) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @03:46PM (#41131157)
      You have to learn to weigh up and read between the lines of both amateur and professional reviews.

      For example, just an example, Ryobi garden machinery is crap, as I know from experience. Look up reviews eg here :-

      www.reviewcentre.com

      ... (where I have written both good and bad reviews myself without censorship) and you will find lots of people saying Ryobi stuff is crap, but there is also a minority who say it is great. I have no doubt there is variation in people's experience (sometimes I have been the only person defending something myself) but clearly the balance is bad in such a case. But the ones saying crap often go into some detail as to why it is crap (or why it is good), and when they do that it starts to sound genuine.

      One issue raised about Ryobi is that you cannot easily get spares (in UK anyway - and Ryobi stuff sure needs spares). This is something that you might not think about when you buy (I thought it was a legal requirement for certain classes of goods), but having been warned by the reviews you can check out the point for yourself - try ordering a spare part from the place that is selling the whole items. And by "spares" I don't mean gloves and goggles (as the salesman will), I mean things like ignition coils and drive shafts. My point is that reviews can make you aware of aspects you may overlook, that you can then check for yourself if you don't believe it.

      OTOH I read a customer review raving about something along the lines : "It's great! just as I expected! I am delighted with my new gizmo. It does everything I wanted it to. I can't wait to try it out for the first time !" Idiot.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 26, 2012 @12:50PM (#41129947)

    Back in the 1980's, if you read a review on the internet (usenet at the time, there was no web yet), you could be sure it was from a "real person", and was a real opinion, not a paid shill or something written by a marketer. You could be sure the resulting discussion was being engaged in by real people as well.

    That culture has been lost from the entire internet, and it is increasingly hard to sort out what's real from what's not. Some of them are obvious, but the better shills are increasingly sophisticated. This is one of the many prices paid for the eternal september. It was overrun by the marketeers and the ad men, who ruined the commons for the rest of us.

    Captcha: throngs

    • Mod up. Innocence lost. The start of the internet, like the hippie days, was full of promise. Then they commercialized it, and that was the end of the 'free' internet, now everywhere you click you need a credit card number. Now you have to be suspicious of every email you recieve, malware may be lurking in a pixel, for chrissakes! "Free" games require "In App Purchases". Look out for fake reviews, trolls on slashdot! I'm going back to sleep, somebody wake me when it's 1985 again...
  • Does Consumer Reports still have a good reputation? If so, problem solved

    • by kelemvor4 (1980226) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:03PM (#41130055)

      Does Consumer Reports still have a good reputation? If so, problem solved

      Except they miss a lot of products. I used them for a time, and found that unless I was buying a car or a major appliance it wasn't all that useful.

      • Yeah, this seems to be about book reviews. If enough people submitted reviews, there's bound to be some negative ones. Just read those, and ignore the five star ones. For better accuracy, do like any other statistician, and throw out the highest and lowest scores.

        • Yeah, this seems to be about book reviews. If enough people submitted reviews, there's bound to be some negative ones. Just read those, and ignore the five star ones. For better accuracy, do like any other statistician, and throw out the highest and lowest scores.

          I'll second that suggestion about discarding outliers. I'll also add in a few other things - for example weighting the reviews of those who actually purchased the thing (Amazon has a "verified purchase" icon next to reviews, but they don't use the lack of a purchase to weigh down the reviews/ratings by people who've never purchased the item). A store like amazon could also identify shill accounts. For example, my book on Amazon got a single 1-star review (out of a total of 5 good reviews) that dragged it a

    • Finally got through.. Ah "customer" reviews. Good entertainment value at least.

    • Does Consumer Reports still have a good reputation? If so, problem solved

      Only partially. To the best of my knowledge, Consumer Reports is still well regarded in terms of freedom from vendor capture, editorial independence, and similar virtues; but it's carefully cultivated area of expertise (necessarily) moves rather slowly and covers limited ground.

      Cars, consumer durables, that sort of thing, no problem. Books, music, games, movies, and similar cultural ephemera? Less useful. Consumer electronics not so well known that David Pogue might have heard of them? Less useful. Reputabi

    • Does Consumer Reports still have a good reputation? If so, problem solved

      Sort of. Their website is littered with the same privacy-invading trackers as most other sites. As far as I am concerned that's a major no-no for an organization that claims to be on the consumer's side and that's enough for me to not renew my yearly subscription. But I have not yet heard of a case where that same attitude has poisoned anything else there ... yet.

      • Privacy invading trackers? You mean the ones they use to know if they have any traffic and if so is it getting where it wants to go on the site?

        Analytics software is used to quantify behavior so the people building and operating the site can make decisions. Nobody cares about you as an individual in this regard. You are just part of an aggregate segment of traffic.

        • Privacy invading trackers? You mean the ones they use to know if they have any traffic and if so is it getting where it wants to go on the site?

          If they weren't happy to hand that data off to 3rd parties by using 3rd party trackers then you would have point.

          Nobody cares about you as an individual in this regard.

          The key here is "in that regard" -- once that data is collected, especially once it is collected by companies that collect it from thousands of other websites, it can and will eventually be repurposed for other uses.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:00PM (#41130011)

    I also used to be skeptical about online reviews, especially when I saw MyCleanPC.com had so very many great online reviews. But then I tried out MyCleanPC, and I saw the truth for myself! The truth being, of course, that all online reviews are fake.

  • Alternate Link (Score:3, Informative)

    by Penurious Penguin (2687307) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:01PM (#41130035) Homepage Journal
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:06PM (#41130083)

    This article is extremely insightful and very well written in a clear and concise format. It helped me and my family greatly and we are thrilled that we took the time to register with NYT. The article was so good that I have gone so far as to take out a one year paid subscription to the online version of the NYT.

    I really can't stress it enough. If you do not read this article, you are losing out. I would read this article again.

    Bill Needledick
    Westbury, MN

  • When you've got a website that use comparative charts of all the products they have reviewed, you can have some trust in their value.
    That doesn't mean they there are no review that were paid for, or that no bad side of a product were purposely omitted, but at least that way they can't fake every performance, because they still have to compare them against each other.

    Apart from that, I guess it's best to stick to the website(s) you know you can (more or less) trust, and to always triple check, or more, with

  • by jbernardo (1014507) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:08PM (#41130107)

    It has long been known that many companies hire "armies" of reviewers and commentators to promote their product and hide any negative information under a ton of PR releases. Waggener Edstrom and a few others advertise their purpose and MO.

    In the beginning, it was easy to pinpoint shills and marketeers; the word astroturf entered the English language after one of the first of such campaigns was identified. Now, they have become smarter; they use several accounts, with some doing "normal" comments and reviews to be seen as reliable and to be able to vote the more strident accounts up. These last accounts are either just spewing the PR garbage directly, and get created and abandoned very quickly, or they create a "personality", almost always biased towards a single company or product, but always somewhat discrete, trying to appear as genuine fans, upbeat about a product. These are harder to identify, as sometimes a blind fan might not be different from one of these shills; but usually blind fans don't get up voted as quickly as these are by the other company accounts.

    Slashdot has been resisting these tactics, but they are pervasive, and there is money in this kind of trolling, so it is always a difficult battle...

    • by mrstrano (1381875)

      I read negative reviews as well as positive and try to weight in the fact that negative reviews are less likely to be fake. However, if most did like I do, PR companies would switch their tactic to post negative reviews about competing products. It's a very hard problem to solve.

    • ..the word astroturf entered the English language after one of the first of such campaigns was identified.

      I believe the word astroturf entered the English language when they built the Astrodome in Houston.

      • I believe the word astroturf entered the English language when they built the Astrodome in Houston.

        Completely right. I meant the verb astroturfing, but obviously that wasn't what I wrote... :)

  • Which are always written by news reporter who rely heavily on ad revenue for income.
  • You can show someone a pile of reproducable scientific papers a mile high, and show him a couple of testimonials, and the human mind wants to believe the latter every time.

    • You can show someone a pile of reproducable scientific papers a mile high, and show him a couple of testimonials, and the human mind wants to believe the latter every time.

      Less work. Oh, my. Work hurts.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:12PM (#41130133) Journal

    Mr. Todd Jason Rutherford went into the business of poisoning the well, making the internet a worse and less reliable place, and now he just can't trust online reviews... Poor fellow, a dear innocent lamb in a cruel world.

    Seriously, fuck this guy and the horse he rode in on. He poisoned the well, let him drink deeply. The only unfortunate part of his sordid story is that he helped impose the same lowered quality on the rest of us. Ah well, at least his business collapsed, ironically thanks to a bad review...

    • by symbolset (646467) *
      Over time the value of a free thing approaches zero.
      • And, in the long run, everybody dies.

        This neither stops the thing from having some value in the interim, nor blunts the condemnation of those who choose to hasten this process for everyone....

        • by superwiz (655733)

          And, in the long run, everybody dies.

          But not everything does. There are things of lasting value. They usually appreciate in price with time.

    • by alen (225700)

      nope, even the legit online reviews are dumb. ever read the ones on newegg?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:20PM (#41130181)

    Bloggers are contacted constantly to write reviews.

    I've been blogging since the 1990s. A few times a year, I'll write an article about some software and a few months later someone with a competing product will contact me asking me to review their software. Most of the time, they are pushing an open-core system and I reviewed a 100% F/LOSS package.

    There has never been any suggestion that I do more than an honest review, but they have offered to help get the system up and working should I run into any issues.

    I've never done any of those _requested_ reviews. It doesn't interest me and I don't blog for profit. I blog as a way to
    a) help others
    b) help me remember key steps

    Based on my online searches, it appears that commercial video codec transcoders are the worst at this. They build hundreds of websites around a single stolen transcoder with slightly different GUIs - usually just to make ffmpeg have a GUI on Windows or OSX. Crazy.

    Any of the mpg2avi, mpg2h264, mpgtomp4, ipad/ipod-video-converter and hundreds of similar tools are just like that - stolen code they try to repackage for $19.99 with a GUI. I've never seen a valid review for these online.

    BTW, use the FLOSS tool handbrake for these converstions. If you need an output format that handbrake doesn't support, use ffmpeg or avconv directly. Those really are easy-to-use tools.

    • ...There has never been any suggestion that I do more than an honest review, but they have offered to help get the system up and working should I run into any issues...

      You mean "send you a new one?"

      Come on, man. Sell out like all the rest! ;)

      </snark>

  • by fermion (181285) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:20PM (#41130183) Homepage Journal
    As this indicates [xkcd.com], I look for medium length reviews that are 2-4 stars. I assume that 1 and 5 star reviews are put up by interested agents or parties, or people who are just angry.

    I look at it this way. How many people really have time to write long reviews for products they use. I am rather a verbose writer, and have put up some reviews, but they have been concise. Second, how many people are absolutely satisfied with a product. Those that are are of no use to the rest of us. Like my opinion of a retail store, I am more interested in the exceptions rather than how it deal with expected input. How does the store deal with returns and haggling over price. How does the vacuum deal with ninja lego pieces. Does the pretty metal computer get easily dented. Does the story get lame in the middle.

    In all honesty the reason these commissioned reviews work is because there is a lot of crap out there that is basically the same, and all we really want is validation of the choice to buy one piece of crap over another. It is why movies are now made or broken in the first weekend due to social media. No one want to go to a movie that has been lambasted on facebook. It just is not cool.

    • Re:2-4 stars (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @02:22PM (#41130591)

      I look for medium length reviews that are 2-4 stars.

      You are naive if you think these are not fake. This is a standard fake review strategy: As soon as a product is available put up three reviews: 5, 5 and 4. This gives an average of 4.7, which works better than a perfect 5.0. After a few more days, put up a few more 5s, another 4, and a 2. The 2 says something like this: "This looks like a great product, but it didn't work for me because I needed compatibility with CP/M v0.8 (or some other problem that applies to absolutely nobody). But they refunded my money with no hassle at all, so I would be very happy to buy some of their other products such as (link) or (link)."

      Marketers are well aware that people tend to discount perfect reviews, and tend to read the low reviews more carefully. So they adjust their marketing accordingly.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        And don't forget that astroturfing isn't just about making yourself look good, it's also about astrotrashing your competition. Alternatively you can run a really really poor and obvious astroturfing, making it look like not only is the company so desperate about their product quality they need to resort to astroturfing, they're also horribly inept at it. Ultimately it comes down to actually reading review and thinking "Does it sound like the author has an ax to grind or is trying to sugarcoat it?", usually

    • by Quirkz (1206400)
      I've posted a 1-star review before. I wasn't angry, just thought the product (a game in this case) didn't have enough good qualities to merit a second star.
  • This is an inevitable result of buying stuff online. If I want to know if a book is any good, I'll ask the people in my local bookstore, or at my library. That's right. I'll talk, face to face, with actual, living human beings about.. and get this... actual, physical books.
  • When I'm reading reviews on Amazon, etc., I only look at the one-star and two-star reviews to see what buyers do not like about the product. You can tell pretty easily what's a real gripe ("Slashdot has too many Packt Publishing reviews") and what's a paid shill from a competitor ("Slashdot has too many Packt Publishing reviews, I only read those really excellent books from O'Reilly").
  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday August 26, 2012 @01:39PM (#41130295) Homepage

    The trouble with crowdsourcing is that crowds can be sourced. I've been pointing this out for several years now. My "Social is bad for search, and search is bad for social" [sitetruth.com] paper covers this. Some review spam is remarkably inept. My favorite, in the paper, is a set of three restaurant reviews that were clearly scraped from reviews of a car wash. Carpet cleaning reviews on Yelp tend to be amusing. The same phrases reappear in many reviews. Many reviews mention a company different than the one being reviewed. We know, of course, that over 80 million Facebook accounts are fake. [cnn.com] Many of those fake accounts are being driven by 'bots posting fake reviews and social stats.

    Social spam has been around for years, but went big-time in 2010. In Q4 2010, Google merged Google Places results into main web search. Google Places results could be easily spammed with fake reviews before that, but few people had bothered until those results boosted rankings in web search. Then the spam floodgates opened. Google was so heavily spammed that the mainstream press noticed. Google had to back off a bit on using Places results in web search to get their search quality back up.

    The legacy of that debacle is that it became widely known that social spam was a safe, almost respectable SEO activity. Link farms, the previous way to spam Google, are expensive to run, and when Google detects one and blacklists it, an entire server farm suddenly becomes useless. Social spam doesn't put SEO operators at risk. The social networks even host the spam for free!

    There's a potential winner in this - Amazon. Amazon knows if you actually paid money for the thing. They have identity data from credit cards. Amazon can still be spammed [amazon.com], but the spammer has to spend money, so the cost per spam is high.

    • "Some review spam is remarkably inept." Also note that paid reviewers don't review the same things that normal people review. A real person will review 15 restaurants all over a city in the course of a year or two. A paid reviewer will review 4 pet grooming shops and 5 auto bodywork places in one week. Check the histories...
  • What are your opinions on "Consumer Report" reviews? Are they legit to any degree? I'm trying to find a dependable central A/C & heating package. Every damn review out there is well written astroturf lies. After reading around a dozen positive reviews for a particular brand/model, I almost bought it, but luckily, I ran across a very negative, very detailed, review. Whether or not that one negative review was legit or from a competitor, I truly could not discern. It just seemed like a real dissatisf
  • This article was totally gripping and enthralled me from beginning to end. I should've been doing analysis on my pump temperature data, but thanks to this article, I guess my report will be late. I'm so glad that I subscribed to the NYT, because David Streitfeld really knows how to do his research and produce an accurate and compelling report. It changed my life; I'll never look at online testimonials the same ever again.

  • Please give priority to 'Social Media Consultants' and 'Search Engine Optimisation Experts'.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Called "Testimonials".

    For a gentle (and fun) introduction to the world Testimonials, the ancestors Reviews descend from, read the stories of O'Henry's "Gentle Grafter". Available free via Project Gutenberg.

    Also read the back (advertising) pages in old comic books, from the nineteen-fifties and 'sixties. visit a collector, if you know one, or a shop where you can peruse imperfects.

    There are lots of other literary sources, including movies. W.C.Fields selling a patent medicine that "cures hoarseness" is fa

  • You have to assume that AT BEST any customer data you see has been screened. If customer satisfaction data is published, the only rational reason for doing so is as a form of advertising.

    Only a third of online reviews are fake? The idea is laughable because most on-line reviews are positive.

    People are much more motivated to post a negative comments than a 100% positive one. This is because when people get screwed, they are angry which is a strong motivator for action. When you get what you expect, you

  • I learned long ago that you should make sure that you look at the negative reviews to really get a feel for a product. For one, there's always some of the dopes that are never satisfied with anything and will give awful reviews for trivial reasons. If their reviews AREN'T present, then they're being removed or edited out, which should make you wonder what else is being removed. Then there's usually some people who are unhappy with some aspect of the thing for a legitimate reason - these are the people to li

  • While fake reviews are never good... there are enough incompetent idiots out there posting reviews, that requires specific strategies to deal with.

    Using walmart.com as an example, they ask everyone whether they'd suggest the item to a friend, and compile the votes. Anything less than 70% posiitive is likely a crap product. And you can't buy enough reviewers to move that percentage too far into positive territory. From there, reading the top two comments, then reading through as many of the comments that

  • In fact, I use them extensively in making decisions on buying lots of stuff. It's pretty easy to know which products have a lot of reviews from shills. I first find products with lots and lots of reviews (or sites that have lots of reviews about the product). I read some of the positives, then some of the negatives to see how they stack up. It's pretty easy to tell who put a negative review in because of a bad experience and not necessarily because of a bad product.

    If I'm making a really serious buy, I'l
  • Ignore 5 star gushing reviews (and 5 star reviews in general). Start at 4 star reviews. Highest rating reviews rarely give any worthwhile information to begin with. Always better to see what negatives are said. It's also a good idea to take 1 star reviews with a grain of salt as well, to avoid user-error idiots or rating bombers from competing products. Whenever I am shopping on Amazon or similar site, I start from 2 star reviews and go up to 4 star reviews. Never felt misled once about my purchases.

  • This is the exact issue I was trying to draw attention to in my submission of Why Amazon is Google's Real Competition. [slashdot.org]

    People 'shop' not just for consumer goods, but also for opinions about politics, childrearing and family strategies, education opportunities, medical information and doctor reviews, etc. They use the 'net as their go-to solution.

    The average info seeker believes that the large web portals are neutral purveyors of information. The fact is, those companies' business models are only
  • Let's take newegg.com for an example. If a device or part shows up as one of the top ranked and people buy it and it doesn't work properly, every single one of them is going to go review it poorly. It's called pushback. That's why fake reviews only give you a boost in sales for a couple weeks. After that, they're drowned in actual reviews that are pretty pissed off.
  • http://www.angieslist.com/ [angieslist.com] is completely legit and all it's reviews are great!

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