Understanding and Interpreting
Online Product Reviews

See also: Online Shopping and Payments

As more of us buy products online, we increasingly rely on product reviews to guide our purchasing decisions. However, it can be hard to know or judge whether these product reviews are reliable. We might be prepared to trust reviews from real people who have bought and used the product—but how can you tell if that is the case?

Reputation management service Reputation X suggests that about 20% of online reviews are actually fake. However, Fakespot, a site dedicated to identifying fake reviews, puts this figure much higher, at up to 70% on some sites. This page explains how you can begin to identify fake reviews, and learn to evaluate online reviews for yourself.

Introducing Online Reviews

Whenever you purchase something online, or use a service, you are likely to be invited to leave a review for the company. You can also often review a product or service independently via one of the many review sites set up for this purpose.

Your review may either be sent directly to the business, or posted on an independent review site such as TrustPilot, TripAdvisor, or Yelp. Ostensibly, this review is designed to help the business improve, and to see which areas are most in need of improvement. Unsolicited review sites were often conceived as ways to inform other potential users or purchasers about the positive and negative aspects of the goods or services.

However, reviews—especially those on independent websites, and unsolicited by the business—have become big business, as well as a way to ‘punish’ businesses that do not provide perfect customer service, or even that refuse to provide free goods for any reason.

This has introduced an element of ‘gaming’ by both businesses and customers.

Why Do Reviews Matter?

We increasingly rely on online reviews to guide our decisions about which products to purchase, or what restaurants, cafés or attractions to visit.

Indeed, one study suggests that 91% of buyers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations—provided those reviews are real. However, it turns out that somewhere between about 20% and 70% of online reviews are actually fake: that is, the person reviewing is not a real customer of the business being reviewed.

Why? Because reviews directly affect revenue.

A working paper from Harvard Business School suggests that every additional star in an independent restaurant’s Yelp rating (that is, its average review rating) can result in an additional 5% to 9% in revenue. People are more likely to go to a restaurant with higher ratings. In fact, 86% of potential customers choose to avoid places with a Yelp rating of just one or two stars.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that businesses are tempted to ‘game’ Yelp and other review sites to improve their own ratings, or damage their competitors.

Types of Fake Reviews

There are four main types of fake reviews:

  • A business posts poor reviews of one of its rivals (or pays another firm to organise this process). This can result in the rival business’s star rating going down, and trade going elsewhere.

  • The business pays people to post positive reviews about it. These may be employed by the business, or by outside firms. Again, this is designed to increase the business’s star rating, and make it look more attractive.

  • Consumers use reviews as a way to get discounts for goods or services. One bad review can result in a lot of reputational damage, so businesses will often go out of their way to placate a customer who leaves a bad review. Customers may therefore give fake reviews in the hope of getting free goods.

  • Trolls may post fake bad reviews for fun. Unfortunately, there are people who think that risking someone else’s livelihood is entertaining. Sometimes these people choose to post fake reviews of businesses to try to damage them. Big brands can counter this with positive content. Smaller businesses have fewer options.

Identifying real and fake reviews

It is not always easy to spot fake reviews, but there are some common signs (see box).

Common signs of fake reviews

  • Using extreme star ratings. This is not infallible, because often the people motivated to leave reviews are either extremely happy, or extremely unhappy. However, it pays to remember that those paid to leave reviews are being paid to boost or damage the business’s reputation as much as possible, and be wary of extreme reviews.

  • Extreme language and over-confidence. Let’s face it, nothing’s perfect. A review that raves about a product, especially without providing detail, is likely to be fake. Real reviews are more balanced.

  • Lack of detail. Real reviews will give you the genuine pros and cons of the product or service, and leave it up to you to judge. They will contain details about aspects like how well the product worked, or if it broke quickly, or how good the service was in the restaurant. If there are no details on a one-star review, it’s probably fake.

  • Detail, but about an irrelevant story. If you don’t know anything about the product, it is a lot easier to write lots of words telling an irrelevant story than providing details of how the product works. Beware of reviews telling you, for example, that the reviewer’s partner also loved the product, and the reviewer is going to have to order another because the partner has adopted theirs.

  • Timing that doesn’t make sense. If it doesn’t look like someone could have visited the business at the time specified—then they probably weren’t there.

  • Users who do not use their names, but instead use a nickname. With a nickname (or several) you can leave multiple reviews without anyone knowing.

  • Something that looks too good to be true. You might expect glowing reviews of an expensive brand-name product. However, glowing reviews of cheap knock-offs, especially if they promise perfect quality rather than value for money, are likely to be fake.

There are also some ways that you can identify real reviews (that is, those from genuine buyers or users of the product). For example, real reviews will often use the person’s real name. On Amazon or other marketplaces, you may also see a message next to the review saying ‘Verified Purchase’, which means that the site has verified that the reviewer has actually bought that product. You need to be aware that there are ways to game this too—and a purchase does not mean that they have actually used it, but this is about the best that a site can do.

Where a business has responded, it may also be easier to tell if the review is real or fake. For example, if the restaurant owner has responded by saying ‘Sorry, but we weren’t open that night, so you weren’t there’, this is pretty clear. A more subtle indication of a fake review is where the business has issued an invitation to engage more and provide more details—and the reviewer has not done that.

Tools to spot fake reviews

There are tools and browser extensions that will help you to spot fake reviews, supplied by companies like ReviewMeta and Fakespot.

These may help—but be aware that they use algorithms, and as such are susceptible to potential bias and inaccuracy. Rules can only take you so far, although the tools are improving all the time.

Make Your Mind Up

There is no infallible way to spot fake reviews. Even review sites—who surely have the best datasets to work with—find it difficult.

Ultimately, the answer to ‘can you trust online reviews?’ is ‘no, not really’. Personal recommendations are likely to be best. However, you can still use online reviews to inform your purchasing decisions, as long as you evaluate them carefully.