Should I trust online reviews?

The web is saturated with user reviews. Everything is being rated by consumers: food brands, tech products, estate agents and even jobs.

Online reviews are indeed useful. Before parting with your money or making a life-changing decision, why not have a look at what other users think about a particular product or service? But there are very important things to look out for.

Many people don’t even spend much time reading individual reviews. You can simply have a look at how many people posted the rating and what the average rating is, while only having a quick glance over the actual posts. However, as I recently found out the hard way, this is not the way to do it.

I have been planning a trip to a nice sea-side town for a very special occasion and needed to book a hotel. I found a particularly nice 5-star hotel which had consistently good rating across a number of review websites. Vast majority of people have posted a 5-star rating, while only a handful have not been so satisfied. No red flags, as I thought, as it is perfectly normal to find a couple of grumpy people everywhere, even in the best of places.

I was also amazed by the pictures of the rooms on the hotel’s website. Not only they looked stunning, but were also absolutely massive, especially so-called King Executive rooms. Therefore, without a second thought, I booked the place.

To my shock and horror, the place turned out to be completely different from the picture I had in my mind based on the customers’ reviews. My “King Executive” room was no bigger than an average bedroom in a medium-size flat, there was no air conditioning on a hot summer night and no sound insulation whatsoever.

I later found out that the huge room on the picture was a panoramic (360 degrees) photo and the 5-star rating is not approved by any independent bodies. The hotel has totally made it up.

Of course, this disappointing situation could have been very easily prevented if I would have followed the five principles outlined below. Therefore, if you don’t want something like this to happen to you, read on.

1. Be skeptical of a disproportionately large number of 5-star reviews

Often, a large proportion of excellent reviews means an excellent product or service. However, this is not always the case. Some organisations choose an unethical method of artificially boosting their rating by hiring a large number of fake reviewers.

Many of fake reviewers are based in developing countries. For example, Bangladesh has a well-developed industry of mass-production of reviews. People do have full-time job to register as many profiles as they can and write as many positive reviews as they can. And it cost very little for the companies to hire such services due to their location. So, in theory, every organisation out there could afford to do it.

And, indeed, it is not only small and not very well known companies that use the services of fake reviewers. Large organisations have been caught doing it too. For example, Peak District National Park appeared to have been visited by suspiciously high number of people from Dhaka.

There is no hard and fast rule to determine whether all of those positive reviews are fake. However you can read a couple of those and see whether they don’t look too vague.

Ask yourself whether this would be what you would write if you would be extremely happy with the service. It would also be a good idea to read a couple of negative ones to see if they sound reasonable or look like they have simply be written by grumpy people.

There is one indicator that would certainly tell whether the majority of reviews are fake, but it is only available if the website publishes the location from where the majority of reviewers came from. If, for example, an expensive posh restaurant in London looks like it is very popular among the residents of a remote third-world country, something is wrong here.

However, the fake review industry is getting smarter and many people are beginning to hide their location by using VPNs and Proxies.

2. If all reviews are either 1 or 5 star, that’s a red flag

A product or service is expected to have the whole range of reviews if many people have submitted their feedback. This is because even with the best product ever, there will be people who wouldn’t be fully satisfied. Likewise, a moderately bad products would have people who are not fully unhappy with it.

Therefore if you don’t see any 2, 3 or 4 star reviews but see many 1 star and 5 star ratings, it is a very strong sign of really bad product and a company that uses the service of fake reviewers.

In situation like this, it can be almost guaranteed that 1 star reviews are genuine while 5 star reviews are made up. This is a sign of an organisation that doesn’t care the slightest about the quality of services that it delivers, but does care a lot about its perceived image.

3. Does the company reply to the negative reviews?

Another red flag is to see whether the organisation replies to people’s reviews and how it does it. If many kind of reviews receive fairly generic reply, i.e. when the company thanks those who submitted positive reviews and apologises to those who submitted the negative ones, it is acceptable. So it is if the organisation only replies to negative reviews and only does so with apology. However, if all that repliers do is attempting to show the reviewers in the bad light, be sceptical.

The hotel that I have spoken about did exactly this to every single 1 and 2 star review. Every reply would contain a detailed account of how this particular customer behaved inappropriately and how the staff were mistreated.

And it could be true with the customers who have posted under what looked to be their real names and/or provided detailed account about their stay. However, when you see the same kind of reply addressed towards someone with the user name of “kitty123” who has only provided a brief overview of their stay, it is not possible to figure out who the customer was, so it is pretty clear that the allegations by the hotel are completely made up.

This is another sign of not being committed to deliver quality service and being concerned purely with the marketing.

4. Watch the language

When you read the positive reviews, it would be a good idea to ask yourself whether they look like they have been written by the people who would use this particular business.

For example, if a particular estate agent would specialize in low-cost rental properties in deprived areas, would it make sense if most of its positive reviews are written in queen’s English? Likewise, would an average buyer of a vacuum cleaner know much about its technical specs?

5. Croudsourced trolling

However, there are not only fake positive reviews to watch out for. Occasionally, a perfectly good product or service gets bombarded by negative ratings due to some perceived controversy that company bosses did.

And it doesn’t always have to be something genuinely bad, as there are many people out there who follow crazy causes. For example, I like to eat meat. To the majority, what I just said is not a big deal at all; however some of the militant vegan readers just got offended to death by this statement.

Just like with mass-produced positive reviews, there is no easy way to spot the negative ones. However, some clues may exist. For example, has the company been accused of unethical behavior on the news? If so, has there been a spike of negative reviews shortly after the accusations?

Fortunately, croudsourced trolling is very rare.