Online reviews are revolutionizing the way people buy products and services. According to a recent survey:
- A full 90 percent of customers use online reviews before buying
- 82 percent said reviews affect the buying decision
- Reviews from real users are more influential (84 percent) than reviews from experts (16 percent)
As we start to see this revolution extend to reviews of enterprise software and hardware, it’s important to consider the authenticity of reviews that are posted online. If a new restaurant gets dozens of stellar reviews on a consumer review site, many people would be persuaded to give it a try. But what if you couldn’t trust that those good reviews were legitimate?
The prevalence of fake reviews is growing every year. A new report from Gartner predicts that by 2014, up to 15 percent of posted reviews will be false. Companies are paying people to post positive reviews of their products and services. And in many cases, the company employees are posting the reviews themselves.
There are numerous examples. A recent search on Fiverr.com, a site where people offer to perform tasks for small amount of money, turned up dozens of offers. Someone named Maipai posted this: “I will write an online review for $5.” Not surprisingly, she had many takers. Positive reviews include “Excellent reviewer. Keep up the great work,” “Great job. Did the project in 41 minutes” and “Good Job. Would use again.”
There are more insidious methods as well. The New York Times earlier this year ran a story highlighting reviews of a black leather case folio cover; 310 of the 335 reviews on Amazon.com were five stars and most of the rest were four stars. How did the company do it? By offering a rebate to customers who posted good reviews.
The reason for the uptick in fake reviews, according to Gartner senior research analyst Jenny Sussin, is that organizations are looking for ways to increase their digital footprint and, of course, sales. Competition is fierce.
In addition to being unethical and illegal -- the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says companies that pay for positive reviews are guilty of deceptive advertising -- it causes confusion for buyers because fake reviews are often very difficult to spot. The result isn’t so painful with the restaurant example -- you might be out the cost of the dinner, but it won’t break the bank -- but with expensive or mission-critical products and services, the impact can be devastating.
So if you can’t easily spot fake reviews, how can you use online reviews to help narrow your options? It comes down to trusting that the site you are working with has put ironclad controls in place to stop fake reviews from ever making it onto the site.
Companies are taking steps to improve user reviews. The company I co-founded, IT Central Station, for example, validates users and reviews by cross-checking the information in our database with LinkedIn profiles. It's also important for review sites to bar vendor employees from reviewing their own products or those of competitors, and allow the community to flag reviews that seem suspicious.
What do you think? Is the authenticity of reviews important to you? Comment below.
— Russell Rothstein is co-founder and CEO of IT Central Station. Follow him on Twitter at @RussRothsteinIT or Google.