Don’t Be Scammed By Online Customer Reviews! 4 Things to Know

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

We see customer reviews everywhere. They’ve become ubiquitous on sites like Amazon, where other customers tell us what they like (or really, really hate) about the DVD players, kitchen appliances, and watches we’re thinking about buying. Some, like the reviews for the Mountain Mens Wolf Spirit Moon Short Sleeve Tee, are purely satirical and exist for the entertainment factor. Reviews on other sites can tell you if service at a restaurant was bad, how long shipping will take, and if the products were a good quality or not — all in an effort to help you make the right spending decisions.

Any way you look at it, online reviews are changing the way we shop. Customers on sites with reviews and a question and answer section are 105% more likely to make a purchase than when they’re on sites without them. About 90% of consumers will check online reviews before visiting a business in person, and 88% of customers will trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations for a product. With the popularity of online reviews, potential customers also have more and more information to work with. In one survey, 85% of consumers said they read at least 10 reviews before trusting a company with their business, whether it’s purchasing items online or deciding to visit the storefront.

With that amount of popularity, it becomes important for businesses to make sure they’re projecting a positive image. And that’s where the tricks of the Internet come in. With the right tools — and a little bit of money — companies can attempt to cover up negative reviews. As a result, the responsibility is on you to make sure you’re finding true, honest feedback about the sites and products you want to visit and buy.

The Cheat Sheet talked with Jeremy Gin, the CEO of review platform SiteJabber, to find out more about vetting online reviews. SiteJabber allows customers to review any online or brick-and-mortar company, and also allows companies to respond to criticisms for free. However, the site doesn’t allow for businesses to pay to erase a bad reputation. If a company earned a bad review, they can apologize but can’t make it disappear. Gin talked with us about key ways to avoid being tricked by online reviews, and what to look for before making purchases.

For the most part, using customer reviews has allowed people to feel good about buying big-ticket items online, even from small companies that don’t have national reputations — as opposed to just buying from big box stores, Gin said. “With all this great review data, people are getting more and more comfortable using the smaller brands,” he said. Above all, looking for patterns in customer reviews will help you to know if you’re going to have a good experience. Are you looking to make a big purchase — or just buy some holiday gifts? Here are a four tips from Gin about how to use reviews in the best ways possible.

1. Know that companies can buy good reviews

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

We’ve mentioned it before, but we’ll spell it out as a reminder. On many review sites, companies can pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to bury bad reviews, or get rid of them completely. Review sites essentially extort companies to keep a good online reputation, Gin said. Though extortion is always bad, it’s consumers who end up with the short end of the stick. “Consumers can’t tell the difference if [the company] earned a good review or if they just paid for it,” Gin explained. 

No matter what, Gin said it’s important to have a healthy skepticism when approaching any review site. Look into their business model and see if businesses are allowed to pay to alter their online reputation. For example, Yelp has denied doing this, but plenty of users claim their negative posts have been removed from the site. (It’s helpful to realize, however, that Yelp does have an algorithm in place that weeds out less frequent reviewers, as well as what it deems to be biased reviews.)

2. Fake reviews are everywhere

In October, Amazon filed a lawsuit against more than 1,000 people for selling fake reviews of products — sometimes even allowing the Amazon seller to write their own review. Though Amazon has just started filing lawsuits against fake reviews this year, the reviews have been around since the dawn of the online 5-star system. They’re almost impossible to weed out completely, Gin said, no matter what review site you visit. However, there are some telltale signs to watch for.

First, look for reviews that have a similar style, use the same vocabulary, or have the same tone. A lot of times, this means one person is sitting at their computer, masking their IP address, and posting multiple reviews from one place. “It’s very hard for people to mask the way they write,” Gin said. Second, fake reviews will often have poor grammar and misspelled words, since many companies will hire people from overseas to write fabricated reviews for them. In addition, look for posts that are general and hyperbolic, but don’t say much about the experience itself. (Something like “Best company EVER” should be a red flag.) “Real people don’t usually write stuff like that,” Gin explained. And finally, check to see when the reviews were created. If 50 or 100 of them popped up all at once, you’re probably looking at fraudulent information. 

If you notice reviews that appear to be fake but still want to use the company, it’s important to read the negative reviews on that company, Gin said. That way, you’ll know the worst-case scenarios, even if you can’t trust the positive feedback about the company or product.

3. Take business’ responses into account

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

We all know that person who takes joy in bringing others misery — even if it means posting horrible reviews when they’re not deserved. People sometimes have bad days, Gin said, and others are simply impossible to please and will tell the world all about it. When you see these types of reviews pop up, it’s important to evaluate how a business responds.

“It’s critical to read business responses to bad reviews in particular,” Gin said. By doing this, you’ll be able to gauge how a business will treat you if there’s a problem with your order. Look to see if a business responds promptly, professionally, and if they propose solutions. If they comment with a canned response or they don’t bother to respond at all, it should raise red flags in your mind, Gin said. “It should tell you if you’re own or not when something goes wrong,” he said.

In most cases, businesses large and small are realizing how important it is to respond to customer complaints online, Gin said. “If you’re a small business, your online reputation is your reputation, period,” he said. But even larger companies are starting to respond on review sites. Lowe’s, for example, has been more active in recent months, Gin said. “I think they realized how powerful that was,” he explained.

4. Look for reviewers like you

If you’ve vetting reviews and looked at business responses but you’re still unsure if the product or company is right for you, take your personal preferences into account, Gin said. “Go through reviews that sound like you,” he advised.

This is especially true if you’re looking to purchase a big-ticket item, like a couch or expensive electronics. To go one step further, message those reviewers directly for more information. By doing that, you’ll be able to get a full picture of their purchasing experience. If they value the same things you do, you’re more likely to find out if you should make the same purchase.

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