Fake online reviews sometimes hard to spot

HOUSTON - The Internet has allowed everyone's inner critic to not only come out, but to come out swinging. Every product website has a section for consumers to voice their opinions and it appears more shoppers are reading them when making a purchase.

"I tend to read the reviews more and more and they're starting to really influence me," said Houstonian Alison Stevens.

Stevens told Local 2 she has used the reviews to find service people for home repairs and while searching for recommendations for hair and nail salons.

The reviews are there for everyone to read, including the good, the bad, and especially the ugly.

"It's like they say, you tell one person. If it's a good experience, you tell 10. If it's worse, you'll tell 100," said Houstonian Jeff Pate.

The creator of the consumer complaint website Rip-Off Report, Ed Magedson, said this new wave in griping is turning the tables on sellers.

"Back in the 20th century, it used to be buyer beware. Today, more so, it's seller beware. The consumer now has a real voice," said Magedson.

Angie Hicks, the creator of the service referral website Angie's List, told Local 2 there's a question about just how reliable reviews have become.

"Consumers are making too big of decisions based on information they read online. It needs to be good information by real consumers so it can make doing that research easier," Hicks said.

Being able to tell the difference between real reviews and fake ones is not easy. Just ask researchers at Cornell University (http://www.cs.cornell.edu/~myleott/op_spamACL2011_slides.pdf).

They hired freelance writers to fabricate 400 reviews and mixed those with 400 real reviews taken from online.

Lead researcher Myle Ott found people could not tell the difference with any consistency.

"There's lots of fake reviews out there. You know competitors trying to be malicious to their competition, so it's tough to know what's a real review and what's not," said Houstonian Roger Janik.

Complicating the issue, is a rising number of web services offering money for reviews. Reviewstream.com, Shvoong.com, and Ciao.com all offer pay for reviews and they pay even more if people find the reviews helpful.

On the website Fiverr.com, users are selling product reviews for $5.

This comment found under one writer's own reviews highlights the issue with hiring people to craft these reviews.

A buyer known as "Roc" posted, "Can you do more under a different account and name? I have some competitors posting negative reviews and I want to bury them. Let me know your thoughts... Roc."

So how do you review the reviewer? The Cornell researchers designed an algorithm using linguistics and other variables to do what humans could not. Their computer program sniffed out the fake reviews 90 percent of the time.

"If it's one or two people I won't usually take it to heart too much, but if there's a lot of people saying the same thing, it makes a lot of sense to follow it," said Houstonian Galye Abrahams.

Abrahams has the right idea. Checking multiple reviews is a good start.

Signs an online review is fake:

  • Start with the name: There should be one. Anonymous posts should not carry the same weight as those with an identity.
  • Check the identity: See what other items they have reviewed and how those were written. If you see they have reviewed the same type of product multiple times, like 10 comments on 10 different vacuum cleaners, it could be a red flag they are a professional poster.
  • Check the dates of all the reviews: If several are within days of each other, it could signal the seller is trying to skew his own ratings by fishing for comments from friends or hiring people to flood the website with positive reviews.
  • Look at the word choice: Few real reviewers will use the official name of the product or the full catalog description of the item.
  • Too much emotion: Using too many exclamation points, Using the word "love" excessively and writing about over-the-top adoration for something like dinnerware should be another sign.
  • Too many "I" statements: While researchers say past studies have shown people who tell lies use the word "I" less as a way to distance themselves from the fabrication. Online, the opposite seemed to be true. When writing reviews, the fibber used "I" statements more often, the researchers believed as a way to increase their credibility.

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