Online reviews have become fake news

My trust in online reviews has been wavering for some time but it was the recent purchase of a wall stud scanner from Amazon that sent me over the edge. I’ve been trying to become more self-sufficient and improve my non-existent DIY skills. This took me down the path of researching DIY tools on Amazon. Like many, I’m reliant on reviews as an indicator of quality, even more so when buying things I’m not familiar with, e.g. wall stud scanners! When browsing Amazon’s extensive catalogue I went for “Amazon’s choice” (Amazon are recommending it, so it must be good, right?). It also had a large volume of reviews which were mostly positive. However, when the product arrived it looked and felt like a cheap piece of crap!

My expectations for this wall stud scanner weren’t unrealistically high, however, I was definitely expecting something better than what I received. For starters, the thing wouldn’t stop beeping which suggested I had wall studs everywhere! Just as I went to find the instructions to make sure I was using it correctly, the following card fell out:

This wasn’t a genuine Amazon gift card, this, in fact, was a bribe. On the reverse of the card were very specific instructions on how the recent purchaser of this cheap piece of plastic tat could earn themselves $20:

This explained why my recent purchase had so many 5-star reviews while looking, feeling and working like a piece of cheap crap!

Selection bias

The $20 gift card I was being offered is what’s called: Incentive-caused Bias. It stands to reason that your opinion is significantly influenced when you’re being paid. This isn’t the most common form of review manipulation that companies undertake though. There’s a much easier and cost-effective way which doesn’t involve paying people. It’s called: Selection Bias. It’s very simple: only encourage the people you know that will give you a good review to write one. I used to work for a software subscription business and they would email you for an online review once you’d renewed your software. It’s fair to say you’re happy with the product otherwise you wouldn’t have renewed. Needless to say, we didn’t email the large population that hadn’t renewed or had been refunded. It’s fair to say most companies with a marketing department are adopting this tactic to manipulate their online review score. Here’s another example, I recently used MyBuilder.com (a service for finding tradespeople). After hiring a handyman via their website I received the below email. I gave them top marks so 10 out of 10. Go forward 7 days and I receive an ” independent review request” from TrustPilot on behalf of MyBuilder to post a review. Needless to say, if I’d given any score less than a 9 then I wouldn’t be receiving the TrustPilot email.

After giving a positive score, Trustpilot asks for a review. This is how companies manipulate positive feedback: selection bias.

TrustPilot cannot be trusted

Quite possibly the kings of untrustworthy reviews are TrustPilot. Their entire business model centres around companies with good reviews. Any business can use TrustPilot, however, if you want to advertise your reviews then you need to pay. Obviously, you’ll only want to advertise your reviews if they are good. This means more companies with good reviews = more money for TrustPilot. Not only are TrustPilot guilty of encouraging selection bias but they also allow companies to remove bad reviews. On the odd occasion I’ve left a bad review it’s been removed by the company in question. This practice only accelerates the biased sample score, meaning average scores are significantly biased to the upside. TrustPilot claims to have a “fraud detection algorithm”, but I’m not sure I believe this, if true then they need to hire better engineers. It wouldn’t be difficult to weed out what are obviously fake reviews, for starters why can a single individual leave multiple positive reviews about one company? TrustPilot gives lip service to fixing the issue but there’s little evidence to support this.

TrustPilot reviews openly being sold on the internet.

Even Glassdoor reviews are faked

Glassdoor is a website where current and former employees can review workplaces. Several years back I was working for AVG Technologies (now Avast Software) and they were in the process of becoming a listed company on the NYSE. AVG’s Glassdoor score had always been below average which doesn’t look good for potential investors or employees, so miraculously hundreds of 5-star reviews came flooding in from employees – problem solved:

Glassdoor’s rating trend highlights obvious manipulation

How to combat the untrustworthy review system

With so many reviews biased by selection/population, incentives or outright faked – what can you do about it?

  • Don’t read 5-star or 1-star reviews – these are more likely to be fake. 2, 3 and 4 star ratings are more likely to contain insights.
  • Assume Amazon reviews are inaccurate and use multiple sources. Using my recent DIY purchase example, I’ve also been reading the reviews on screwfix.com
  • Don’t assume products/services with a below average score aren’t worth your time.
  • Which Magazine is a review service and has been established for 60 years. They are considered to be impartial but you need to pay. They offer a trial for £1, which is well worth it if you’re spending a lot of money on a particular item. www.which.co.uk
  • Don’t use TrustPilot.
  • Cheap products with lots of positive feedback should be a red flag.
  • Amazon makes it easy to return stuff – do this when goods aren’t as expected.
  • Install FakeSpot plugin for your browser. I recently installed their Chrome plugin and my first test was to see how FakeSpot scored the wall stud scanner I purchased on Amazon. Fakespot scored my recent purchase poorly with a red flag score of “F”. This obviously begs the question, if they can see faked reviews why can’t Amazon?

Further reading

Fake five-star reviews being bought and sold online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-43907695
I was offered a refund to change a poor Trustpilot rating: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/jan/29/rawlins-trustpilot-review-refund
Can you trust Trustpilot? – 9 million reviews studied: https://www.seotraininglondon.org/can-you-trust-trustpilot/

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