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April 27, 2021

Can you trust those online reviews?

When searching online for a new gadget to buy, consumers pay close attention to the number of stars awarded by other seemingly satisfied customers.

But new research confirms what some of us already suspect: those ratings can be swayed by a small group of busy users.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Vassilis Kostakos says that rating systems that tap into the "wisdom of the crowd" often paint a distorted picture of a product

Kostakos studied voting patterns on sites like Amazon and the Internet Movie Database.  In each case, the professor found that a small number of users regularly accounted for the bulk of the sites' published ratings.

And these results often reflect more than just unbridled enthusiasm. 

Just a few months ago, a developer that had created numerous apps for Apple's App Store, was accused of pumping its ratings, allegedly giving shameless five star reviews to its own products.

There have also been suggestions that unscruplous iPhone developers may even be offering to pay for positive reviews. Last year, Wired magazine uncovered an from Amazon's Mechanical Turk job site that promised $4 to any App Store user who would post a 5-star review of the company’s product.

So, can you benefit from online reviews at all? Sure, you just need to be careful and use them as just one set of data in your product research.

Here are some warning signs, courtesy of The Consumerist, that suggest that an an online review might be the work of a shill: Be on the lookout for reviews that …
  • Have zero caveats, and are full of empty adjectives and pure glowing praise with no downsides
  • Are all left within a short period of time of each other
  • Mainly tally product features rather than performance or reliability
  • Are signed with names that all seem to be variations of one another

With all the dross, what do you do to spot bogus online reviews? Or do you just ignore reviews altogether?

By Gordon Powers, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...