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Learn to Dissect Lies from Truth in Consumer Reviews

Consumer reviews are an indispensable limb of the online body, good for lauding or decrying everything from food to t-shirts. A September report by the non-profit Pew Research Center found 58 percent of Americans regularly use the Internet to research before buying, a dramatic increase of 49 percent from 2004. Web-savvy shoppers are writing, reading and trusting reviews online more than ever before.

Yet user reviews are not always cut-and-dried. Several months back The New York Times unveiled how a Web-based eyeglasses store was playing the system. Unlike businesses that depend on glowing reviews to persuade people, the owner intentionally treated customers shoddily to dupe Google. How? An abundance of negative reviews actually bolstered his company's online presence and made it rank higher in the all-powerful search engine. Dastardly, indeed, and proof that research is more valuable than simply trusting the first page of search results.

Aside from the aforementioned anomaly, most reviews are meant to entice, and fake consumer reviews are no different. Some range from deceptively realistic to hilariously clever. (This review of milk on Amazon is Internet lore.) But carefully written comments can be misleading when taken at face value.

That's where you come in. To better handle the process of dissecting a sketchy review, think back to high school biology. Imagine each as an anatomical thing, complete with parts to be poked, prodded and measured. Being familiar with the following 17 symptoms of fake consumer reviews will help you prescribe the most dubious dreck. And, as with much online, a healthy dose of common sense is an invaluable remedy.

THE SKIN

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1. Reviewer Name
An odd user name is the most immediate sign of a fake. Not to offend people with three- and four-letter givens, but posts by "Bob," "Mary" and "Joe" with no surname should be taken with a grain of salt. Most genuine reviewers craft relatively clever screen names. On certain sites, a small badge will indicate if someone's screen name and user name is the same.

Be wary of names with three or more numbers attached to the end, as these are often the sign of an automated review program. If the moniker sounds exactly like a business, such as "AcmePerformanceTechnology," skip it immediately, especially if the product is related to whatever the company sells.

Laziness is obvious, but there is a caveat to this rule. Brands with a reputation for feverish devotion -- Apple immediately comes to mind -- often have living, breathing followers who use the brand name to show allegiance, like "AppleLover303." However, this level of ardor can lead to other problems (see Numbers 6 and 14).

2. Reviewer Contact and Profile
A casual glimpse at the heading won't uncover every fake review. When you need to dig further, check the built-in profiles provided on some review sites. Amazon, Epinions.com, Sazze.com and more have thriving online communities crafted around these profiles. Most go into almost alarming depth with real names, bio sections, contact info and chat options. An empty or suspiciously constructed profile can reek of counterfeit.

Occasionally, sites give reviewers access to info invisible to casual browsers, such as the e-mail addresses of fellow posters. Try posting a brief review to see if details magically appear. You may notice several different reviews and user names are attached to the same e-mail address.

Social media is an admittedly uneven avenue to take when checking authenticity, but it's useful nonetheless. What started on news sites and blogs has moved to retail, with outfits like RateItAll.com and Viewpoints.com allowing reviewers to sync with a social media account. While likely unintended, a convenient perk is how simple this makes it to spot fakes. If a review is attached to an individual's Facebook or Twitter account, chances are it's legitimate.

3. Previous Reviews
Back to the reviews. Personal history is a good indication of reliability. An author with an overwhelming number of reviews for the same brand or product family is likely a shill, particularly if only positive or negative. On the flip side, a lone write-up could be generic, computer-generated copy spread across several sites.

4. Subject Line and Date
Like the name, a strange subject line can automatically label a review as unreliable. Subject lines that include the full product name or fluffy, useless hyperbole like "This Product Is The Finest Ever Made!" are often trash.

Using the post date to judge a review is a bit more tricky. For services like hotels and restaurants, it's often best to read the most recent postings to get an idea of present conditions. After all, it does little good to know what a hotel was like three years back.

As for merchandise, keep an eye out for clumps of like-minded reviews written within days of each other. Some marketers hire people to swarm the Web and heap mounds of attention on certain items, leading to a kind of promotional carpet-bombing. Use your handy power of reasoning: It's unlikely something released over six months ago will have 20 or more week-old reviews, but it might be common for brand-new items.

guts

5. Number of Reviews for a Product
In general, the more reviews a particular product has, the more reliable overall ratings and comments will be. This rule is more applicable with search engines and aggregate sites like Buzzillions.com, where postings are automatically culled from every corner of the Internet, and less so on retailer websites -- say, the reviews of a flat-screen at Target.

6. Star Ratings
Ah, star ratings: Loved by some, loathed by others, ignored by none. Some savvy consumers skip five- and one-star ratings completely to focus on reviews in the supposedly more credible gray area. Research further if a product seems nearly perfect or remarkably bad based solely on mass ratings, especially if there are 15 or less. People occasionally leave bad reviews to spite products they don't like, a la the never-ending battle between Mac and PC users.

7. Type of Product
Certain items and services see an inordinate number of fake reviews because they tend to be coveted, technical or expensive. In the last two years, tech company Belkin and vacuum manufacturer DeLonghi both suffered blows after coming under fire for fake reviews.

Use extra caution when sifting through posts for the following: Consumer electronics (such as TVs, GPS units, laptops and cell phones); restaurants and hotels; watches and jewelry; sporting goods; and sunglasses.

THE GUTS

8. Text of Review
It's on to the internal organs of any review: the text. Look for stories and descriptions that are incoherent or unlikely. An old stand-by is to add brief personal details, such as recounting the day an item was bought, but the info will come across as strange and stilted. Another favorite is to claim that "Product X changed my life," without giving any reason how or why it did so. These basic arguments can be short and concise or dragged out for several paragraphs.

Two camps are split on the issue of length: Some swear by short reviews, often claiming succinctness is a sign of objectivity. Others balk at sentence-long posts, opting instead to trust in-depth descriptions. While both guidelines have their merits and can save time when browsing hundreds of reviews, your final judgement should rely on overall content. Some of the most reliable reviewers give a simple list of pros and cons, while others choose indulge their inner novelist.

Perhaps the best advice is to think again of the high school biology metaphor. A decent review should lay itself bare by being balanced, logical and, finally, answering the most important question: What should you know before opening your wallet? If it only answers why you should buy, you may be trusting a marketer (see Number 12).

9. Spelling and Capitalization
Although carelessness is often the hallmark of an unreliable writer, a few misspelled words might convince you something was written by a human and not a robot. This isn't always the case: A wealth of mistakes could be an attempt to appear legitimate or some kind of sarcastic exaggeration. Take lA_rAt0nA, a reviewer on Amazon who ends every sentence with lOl and could be a mix of both: "Erbody loved this phone that someone stole it from me a week after i got it, but hey, at least i got to enjoy it! lOl." Yikes.

Remember, many fake reviews are posted simply to add a star rating and what's said in the text matters little to the author.

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10. Word Choice
Wording of phrases peculiar stands out when closely readers look at them. (See?) The repetition of an exact phrase or product, even when nonsensical, is likely a dig for search-engine keywords. Repeatedly saying something like "the 40-Inch Ultra-Thin LCD with Backlit Display by Phillips" when most people would use "the 40-Inch Phillips LCD" is a dead giveaway.

Be wary of reviews with loads of adjectives like "fabulous," "incredible," "unbeatable," "horrible" and "useless." Though not enough to completely discredit an entire posting, such claims are either lazy or unwarranted. Ask yourself this: Did the reviewer think the product was "unbeatable" simply for existing? A lack of context hints at a less-than-credible review.

11. Blind Brand Loyalty
If a reviewer puts more effort into promoting a specific brand than talking about their experience with the product, chances are they shouldn't be trusted. Stand-alone comments like "Company X is great" are common, even when not fake. On the flip side, double-check users who respond to negative reviews with similar sentiments. Most folks would describe how they worked through a problem, not defend a company to the death.

12. Marketing Speak
These reviews are the trickiest of all because, as literate adults, we're trained to trust articulate and informed writing. Problem is, some of the most expertly-crafted reviews are little more than pitches by salespeople.

Some sound and simple advice: Consider whether you're reading an opinion or being sold a product. You'd be surprised how easy it is to tell the difference. Some red flags to look for: An overabundance of technical features with proper names, such as "X3000 1080p Upscaling technology"; info most normal buyers wouldn't care about, like where the product was developed or tested; repetition of the exact product or company name; and profoundly "marketable" claims, such as "Product X will seamlessly connect your home theater system" or "If you're looking for a deal, this is the product for you." If the review includes any cons, they're usually an aside that the item was expensive but worth the cost.

Basically, if the text sounds like something found on the side of a product box, that's where it belongs.

13. Links
Unlike crafted marketing speak, links are easy to spot and the calling card of a less tactful sales ploy. Even if the review appears to be the work of flesh and blood, a link often marks it as little more than a billboard for digital promotion. The same rule applies to reviews with lists of specific places to buy or multiple coupon codes for related merchandise, most often for a competitor.

14. Exaggeration on Both Sides
"All things in moderation" is a motto many online reviewers fail to heed. Some are worse offenders than others, however, and rootless exaggeration can equal unreliability. Think about it: When was the last time an HDMI cord brought your family together or became the very bane of your existence? Such claims are reserved for Netflix and Comcast, respectively. Tall tales can be intricate or simple, glowing or damning, but rarely is such hyperbole true.

15. Odd Phrases
As shown by the New York Times example, search engines are hardly foolproof. Yet they're a great tool to uncover cookie-cutter reviews. Say a phrase strikes you as odd: Copy and paste it into a search engine and see what pops up. You may find it spread across cyberspace, including the merchant's own corporate website.

THE REMEDIES

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16. Places to Rave
There are literally thousands of places to read reviews, from retail sites to chat boards. Some stand head and shoulders above the rest. Because these sites see the highest number of reviews, all have developed helpful tools to strain the real from the fake.

  • Amazon is the go-to site for consumer reviews, period. In fact, other sites often pull directly from the bowels of the Internet behemoth. Amazon pioneered the "social review" concept and includes detailed user profiles and reviewer rankings. It also designates favorable (5, 4 stars) and critical (3, 2, 1 stars) reviews, making it easier to see behind suspiciously high star ratings.
  • Epinions takes the online review culture outlined by Amazon a step further, creating a veritable community around reviews. The Shopping.com-owned site touts its authors as "real people" and includes fail safes like profiles, "top reviewer" awards and user-created Top 10 lists. A word on top reviewers: Many are paid. Like professionals, you hope this doesn't inform their opinions, but it's impossible to tell. 
  • Buzzillions is more than a catchy name: It's the most clean and reliable of the many review dumps online, pulling from Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Walmart and more. Unlike most, it doesn't assault you with ads and simply gives you the best price from a number of retailers. The interface is straightforward and lists 10 categories, including books, electronics and computers. 
  • The Better Business Bureau announced in January it would join the 21st century and replace its archaic "reliability reports" with more user-friendly "business reviews." The new interface encourages consumers to submit their own reviews, which are then evaluated and posted by local BBB offices. The switch may take several months but will be adopted by most major branches.
  • CNET is well known as fount of expert advice on all things tech-related. Most products also come with reader ratings and comments, useful for gauging if real-life use matches the expert opinion. 
  • Consumer Reports is a highly trusted source for reviews, a reputation it reinforces regularly by touting its not-for-profit designation. Of course, the "no advertising" model requires serious moolah from elsewhere and info on its website is available by subscription only. If you're willing to shell out the cash (about $6 a month), you'll find helpful reviews approved by the website editors.

17. Places to Rant
Many online soapboxes are dedicated to business complaints rather than products, often with a focus on dreadful customer service. But if you're looking for raw reviews by bona fide human beings, My3Cents.com, ComplaintsBoard.com and PissedConsumer.com are right down your alley.

As the names suggest, these sites won't offer the most levelheaded or unbiased opinions. Yet hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned, and the reviews are a wealth of details other postings glaze over.

Everyone has a tip or trick to spot fakes. What do you look for when tearing through online reviews for home products, restaurants, services and electronics? Leave 'em below.

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