Three Tips for Spotting Fake Reviews

If you shop online, you’re probably familiar with the “User Review.” These generally take the form of a star-based rating system (1 to 5) and a text portion where users describe what they liked or disliked about the product. User reviews on a site like Amazon are an integral part of their entire business model, as products can live or die on these reviews.

You’ve probably also encountered some fake reviews, whether you knew it or not. Usually, these are submitted by people who are paid by a company to artificially drive up a product’s average rating. Sometimes they are paid by a rival company to artificially depress a competitor’s score. Other untrustworthy reviews aren’t so much “fake” as they are “low quality.” This would include people poorly reviewing a book they’ve never read because the author has a political or religious viewpoint they don’t like, or people who submit reviews of something other than the item, such as “It was broken in shipping” (okay, fine, but Amazon has a process for that…instead of writing that in anger four seconds after you got the broken one, why not wait until you get a replacement and review that?). The one- or two-word reviews you see (“great!” “love it!” “terrible!”) are always low-quality, and may also be fake.

There are far more than three tips for spotting fake or low-quality online reviews; all you need to do is run a search on “how to spot fake reviews” and you’ll get hundreds of articles, but some of the tips are kind of involved, such as checking how many reviews each reviewer has submitted within a certain amount of time—dozens of reviews of random objects in a short span is a red flag—but who has time to do that? I’m more interested in techniques that don’t take up a lot of your time. Here are three semi-quick things you can do.

Check out the one- and five-star reviews first

If a significant number of the highest or lowest reviews are just one or two words long, or if there’s a lot of very poor spelling and grammar, it may be a sign that the seller has paid a lot of people to submit fake reviews for the sole purpose of affecting a product’s average rating. Off-brand electronics have a notoriously high number of glowing reviews that are completely worthless. However, this doesn’t mean all the extreme reviews are bad—if you find some that are well-written and thoughtful, those are worth considering.

Read some two-through-four-star reviews

For the most part, companies don’t pay people for two- or four-star reviews. They want extreme ratings that will have the greatest effect on the average. The reviews that live in the middle—between “didn’t like it much” and “mostly liked it” are generally going to give some reasons for their opinion. Are there almost only five-star reviews out of hundreds or even thousands? Not a great sign.

Ignore the super-emotional reviews

There’s no real reason for anyone to be that angry (or joyful) over a three-pack of furnace filters. If you’re looking at an album by a music group, a review of the bass player’s response to being asked for an autograph in an airport in 1998 is beyond worthless, as are book reviews that say, “I would never read this trash. One star.” I know, we’re all people, and true objectivity is impossible, but give more weight to reviewers who at least try to stick to the benefits and disadvantages of the item you’re looking at.