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It used to be the job of print, radio and TV journalists to review everything from restaurants to movies, products and customer service. But nowadays, anybody with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet can write a review.
That's partly a good thing: The idea is that the democratic nature of consumer-generated online reviews will lead to more truthful, accurate information. But the reality is that online review sites are often filled with impostor reviews from owners who want their products to succeed -- or from competitors who want them to fail.
For example, the popular review site Yelp.com has been sued for allegedly extorting businesses with poor reviews -- allegations the company denies. Travel site TripAdvisor has reportedly been accused by a group of 420 hoteliers of failing to guard against fake online reviews and has since begun flagging suspicious reviews. But there probably isn't a single review site out there that isn't targeted by people trying to game the system.
So how do you differentiate between a suspicious online review and a review you can trust? Start with these guidelines:
Online Review Tip No. 1: Look for real names.
If a website encourages reviewers to post under their real names, its reviews are more likely to be the real deal. Amazon's "real name" system uses the credit card that you have on file to determine your real name and then lets you choose some variation -- John Smith, J. Smith, J.S., etc. -- under which to post a review. A "real name" review is weighted more heavily than an anonymous review, but you can bet there are still plenty of impostors who post anonymously.
Online Review Tip No. 2: Look for real photos.
In the same vein, when reading an online review, look for accompanying photos connected to the reviewer's profile. "If it's a company that's doing the reviewing, a lot of times they don't take the time to put up a photo," says Elysa Rice, a social media expert who blogs at GenPink.com.
Online Review Tip No. 3: Find other reviews by the same person.
If a review is attributed to a username, check whether the reviewer has written other reviews on the site. If you find numerous reviews, it's less likely that the reviewer is a company pretending to be a consumer. Says Rice: "If there's a person who has reviewed 50 other things, then I would take their opinion over someone who has reviewed just one."
Online Review Tip No. 4: Expect a few low-rated reviews.
If every review glows, be suspicious. Even the best-rated restaurants occasionally overcook a steak or make people wait too long.
Online Review Tip No. 5: Read beyond the stars.
Consider why someone gave a poor rating. Recently, a critically acclaimed book received a huge quantity of one-star ratings on Amazon because it wasn't available as a Kindle e-book. Although that had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, those reviews contributed to a misleading overall rating of the book. But you wouldn't realize that without reading the one-star rants.
Online Review Tip No. 6: Use your sixth sense.
If something seems off, be suspicious. For example, people who have an agenda tend to talk in hyperbole. So if a few outliers call a spa "the most amazing experience ever!" or "a fantasy come true!" you'd be wise to ignore them. "There's content that just sounds robotic as opposed to the way humans would talk," says Rice, and that's the stuff you should write off.
Online Review Tip No. 7: Stay skeptical.
No review site can guarantee legitimacy, so take what you read with a grain of salt. Go with your gut.
Finally, once you find your favorite review sites, check if they offer an app you can load on your smartphone. And as with anything good, give back. Get in the mix and write an online review or two of your own: You'll be making the system a little more honest.
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