Nerd Chick Adventures: Can Online Reviews be Trusted?

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Online reviews can be a lifesaver. When I recently needed to get my car fixed while out of town, I didn’t need to stop strangers on the street to ask them for a personal referral. I just pulled out my smartphone and Yelp.com (an online database of restaurants, service providers and attractions where users rate and review their experiences) told me which of the mechanics within a 10 mile radius had the most happy customers, and I could read detailed reviews to determine which was likely to be best qualified to resolve my specific issue.

As more and more consumers begin to depend on reviews before spending money, manufacturers and service providers are growing increasingly aware of the power that positive – and negative – reviews yield. It has created a unique challenge for entry-level players in an entrenched market. How can a new widget maker with no customer feedback hope to get people to purchase his widget, when there is an established, well reviewed “safe bet” widget that shows up in the same list of Amazon search results? And what if, early on, a new restaurant suffers some unfavorable reviews while they’re still trying to get their groove? Those negative ratings can follow them for years.

Unfortunately, falsification of online reviews has become a common practice and it can lead consumers astray. In some cases, favorable reviews are paid for by the company or their public relations representatives in order to have their product or company appear higher and more appealing in search results. In fact, the site www.bestreviewapp.com unabashedly sells favorable app reviews to those developers willing to pay for them. Reviewers are instructed that if they don’t rate an app higher than 4 stars they won’t earn a “bonus.” There have also been cases where unscrupulous service providers will post fake, negative reviews in order to make their competitors appear shady to potential customers.

How can you trust an online review?

First, learn how to quickly spot a fake review, or at least which ones that you shouldn’t give much weight to. Look first at the reviewer’s history. Have they reviewed a wide variety of products or services with varied results and specific details? That review is likely a truthful account of that person’s experience with the product. Fake reviews are often posted by accounts with little or no additional review history, just one vague, glowing review of Joe’s Tree Service. On the other hand, “professional” reviewers may have a lot of reviews but they are all similar in either phrasing used or ratings given. Someone selling positive reviews is likely to have lots of nearly identical reviews, with repetitive phrasings, adjectives and “experiences.” Be wary of wording that is vague, yet offering intense praise or anger.

Also, pay attention to the timeframe in which reviews are posted. A new service provider who has solicited positive reviews from friends and family will likely show a lot of boisterous, glowing reviews in a short period of time (sometimes within a week or two, surrounded by long stretches of no reviews at all). This is particularly obvious when there was a flood of 5-star reviews within a few days and then nothing in the 6 months since. Fishy.

Next, be aware of the limitations of the site that you are using, and the service that you are researching. When I travel to a medium to large city, I find an overwhelming bevy of dining options with hundreds of ratings on Yelp. On the other hand, I had a lot of trouble tracking down a new pediatrician. It turns out that while people seem quick to post reviews of products and restaurants that they love (or hate), it’s less common to search out an avenue to post your experience with a doctor or service provider. In many cases, this can lead to a predominance of negative reviews where disgruntled patients or customers search out an avenue in which to publicly air their grievances.

Finally, make sure that the site you’re using has an established record of collecting and posting non-biased reviews. Be wary of websites that “review” affiliated companies, or rate products that are made by site-advertisers more favorably than others. This is particularly common with websites with names like “bestcellphones.com.”

Once you’re reasonably confident that the reviews you’re seeing are reliable, here are some tips to ensure that you get the most out of online reviews:

  1. Look beyond the star rating. Scan through the detailed reviews and look for commonalities, particularly if several reviewers have a similar reason for loving or hating it. This will allow you to determine if you share a like mind. Perhaps many of the negative reviews on a certain dog bed are because the color wasn’t true to the picture. If you don’t particularly care about the color, you can discount those and focus on the reviews that rave about construction quality.
  2. Pay special attention to the lowest ratings and their associated reviews. In many cases, users will post a terrible review because the product didn’t arrive on time, was damaged in shipment, or they encountered a very specific, personal issue (“the manager’s name was Alfred. I hate that name!”). Note that those 1 and 2 star reviews drag down the overall rating, so if you don’t find those negative reviews to be worth their weight, you can adjust them out in your consideration.
  3. Look for company feedback. Some sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Newegg offer the person or company being reviewed to respond to customer feedback. This can give you invaluable insight into the service provider or manufacturer’s dedication to customer care. When checking out hotels on TripAdvisor, I steer well clear of those owners/managers that reply defensively or unprofessionally to reviewers that post concerns or complaints. Alternatively, a hotel that responds with concern, compassion, and a plan to resolve the issue for future guests gives me the confidence to consider staying with them, particularly if the rest of the reviews are positive.

Nerd Chick Adventures is written by Andrea Eldridge and Heather Neal from Nerds on Call, an onsite computer and laptop repair company in Redding. They can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author: Andrea Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, a computer repair company that specializes in on-site and online service for homes and businesses. Andrea is the writer of a weekly column, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight. She prepares TV segments for and appears regularly on CBS, CW and FOX on shows such as Good Day Sacramento, More Good Day Portland, and CBS 13 News, offering viewers technology and lifestyle tips. See Andrea in action at callnerds.com/andrea/.