Online reviews are one of the primary tools people use to determine which companies deserve their business. In 2021, 98% of consumers reported considering them an essential resource when shopping, up from 89% in 2018.
However, as helpful as crowdsourced online reviews can be, you can’t always take them at face value. They often present a skewed depiction of the typical customer’s experience, which can cause you to select products and service providers that may not be the best choice for you.
This guide will show you how to evaluate online reviews critically so you can make better-informed purchase decisions.
Why Should You Be Skeptical of Online Reviews?
Online reviews can be invaluable, and I’d never tell you to disregard them entirely. Honestly, you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me into a Mexican restaurant with less than 4.5 stars on Yelp.
However, you must read online reviews with a skeptical eye. Every party involved in their creation has an agenda, and they can easily mislead you.
For example, some of the most significant biases to be aware of in online reviews include the following:
- Reviewer bias: People are more likely to leave reviews when things go wrong than right, skewing ratings downward. Not only does the human mind naturally focus on the negative more than the positive, but leaving a complaint on a business’s page may resolve your issue.
- Business bias: Companies have a vested interest in keeping their profiles positive. Even a single unfavorable review can drive away customers. As a result, they’ll often do whatever they can to increase their ratings, including using tactics like paying to remove negative reviews or add fake complimentary ones.
- Platform bias: It’s in each platform’s interest to be known as an impartial source of customer reviews. However, they’re also profit-driven and may accept compensation for letting businesses manipulate their own or other profiles.
The sheer volume of customer reviews on popular websites can mitigate the impact of these biases to some degree, but they’re always present. As a result, you should remain suspicious of online claims and learn to analyze their odds of legitimacy.
How to Evaluate Online Review Platforms
When evaluating the validity of online reviews, first consider the platform where they’re listed, as there are significant differences between them. Let’s cover some ways you can decide how much trust to place in reviews based on where you find them.
Research Their History and Reputation
Examining a review site’s background can help reveal its relative trustworthiness. In addition to doing direct research, it’s often helpful to read through forums like Reddit for insight into other people’s opinions.
Some areas you might want to investigate include:
- How long has the platform been in business?
- Has it maintained a respectable reputation in most circles?
- Has the platform ever been criticized or penalized for dishonest practices?
For example, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) is one of the oldest organizations in the business of rating companies. Founded in 1912, it’s maintained a relatively respected reputation for over 100 years. It filters customer reviews more than most platforms, hence its lower review volume, and assigns its own ratings.
However, its track record isn’t spotless. There have been accusations that the BBB gives oddly high ratings to known fraudulent organizations, charges businesses for accreditations, and unfairly favors companies that pay them more.
The BBB also has a reputation as a place where people go to complain about a problem, which can cause it to attract negative reviews.
Explore Their Manipulation Prevention Tactics
Review platforms can use multiple tools and techniques to prevent businesses from manipulating their profiles. Some of those measures include:
- Identity verification: Require that a reviewer demonstrate they’re a person by providing information like their name, phone number, and email address.
- Transaction verification: Require that a reviewer prove they’re a real customer who made a verifiable purchase from the business they’re reviewing.
- Detection algorithms: Use proprietary software to monitor reviews and prevent or eliminate ones that might be fake, incentivized, or otherwise misleading.
- Manual monitoring: Allow site users to report suspicious or otherwise problematic reviews and have staff that assesses the flagged reviews.
Most popular review sites share the strategies they use to promote accuracy. For example, Trustpilot details how its reviews work and its tactics for combating fake reviews. It also publishes an annual Transparency Report. If you struggle to identify a platform’s policies, that should also tell you something.
Unfortunately, you may find out that there’s a difference between what platforms claim they do and what they actually do. Trustpilot is an example of this. The company talks a lot about fairness and transparency, but it has a reputation for being one of the less reliable review platforms.
I can attest that many of the most scammy businesses I’ve investigated have glowing Trustpilot review pages. Meanwhile, they receive harsh criticism and one-star ratings on other review sites.
How to Evaluate Online Reviews Individually
One of the most important skills for evaluating a business’s online reputation is the ability to analyze reviews individually. Let’s look at some of the best ways to determine whether one is trustworthy.
Investigate the Reviewer’s Profile
The first question you should ask when deciding if you can trust a review is whether it comes from a real person. Here are some data points you can consider to determine how likely a profile is to be legitimate:
- Reviewer name: Fake reviews are often attributed to people with generic names, like John Smith. Alternatively, they may display an anonymous username with random number sequences.
- Other reviews: Fake review bots tend to leave only one review. Real people usually make multiple for the various businesses they’ve patronized over the years.
- Profile age: A profile created on the same day it leaves its only review is more likely to be fake. An account that’s been active for months or years probably belongs to a real person.
- Profile picture: Pictureless profiles are more likely to be fake. However, bots and content farms can also steal someone else’s images. You can use reverse image searches to help reveal this.
Unfortunately, there’s usually no way to be sure whether a reviewer is real or fake. As a result, you should primarily look at customer reviews in aggregate. Get a general impression of whether a profile is accurate, inflated, or deflated, and find recurring patterns to extract the most likely pros and cons of working with a company.
Consider the Details of the Review
In addition to the creator’s profile, the details of a review are critical for assessing its legitimacy. For example, some of the most significant indicators that a review is fake or untrustworthy include the following:
- Poor writing: A review riddled with spelling errors, grammatical issues, and confusing sentences is more likely to be untrustworthy. The bots and content farms that create fake reviews often fail to write like native English speakers.
- Generic comments: Fake reviews tend to lack concrete details, instead making claims that could apply to any product or service. They may also follow a formulaic structure that’s repeated in other reviews on the page.
- Overenthusiam: Reviews may look like they’re from a real person but come across excessively positive or negative. That may indicate they are fake or otherwise biased.
- Phrasing clues: Fake reviews sometimes overuse first-person pronouns like “I” and “me” to appear more human. They may also focus on scene setting, unnecessarily describing a person or event for storytelling purposes rather than providing concrete details.
Unfortunately, even if a review comes from a real customer with good intentions, that doesn’t mean it’s worth incorporating into your purchase decisions.
People often leave unjustified comments because they misunderstand a business’s product or service. Here’s one from someone who thought Credit Strong offered financing rather than credit builder loans and bashed them for it.
In addition, the ratings people give to the businesses they patronize can be incredibly arbitrary. After all, there are no universal rating criteria, and people leave reviews for many different reasons. For example, here’s a review from the Yelp page for Michelangelo’s legendary Sistine Chapel.
It appears critical at first glance, but further investigation of the profile indicates that Paul likes to leave reviews that he thinks are funny. Keep these different perspectives in mind and look for them when you analyze reviews.
How To Evaluate Online Review Profiles Overall
The ability to analyze individual reviews is essential, but online opinions are often the most insightful in aggregate. To assess a business’s reputation, you must be able to evaluate broader trends in its profiles. Let’s go over some tactics to help you do that.
Look for Signs of Artificial Inflation
Due to the impact reviews have on prospective customers, it’s common for businesses to increase their ratings by any means necessary. Here are some of the red flags that indicate a company is trying to boost its reputation dishonestly:
- Sudden increases in positive reviews or ratings: Businesses that purchase fake accolades tend to do so in bulk. Check review dates to find any sudden jumps in their numbers or a rapid increase in their accumulation frequency.
- Mentions of invitations or incentives: Businesses may request reviews from customers more likely to praise them or incentivize good reviews with discounts and free products. Look for negative reviews that claim people are receiving incentives. You can also filter for invited reviews on sites like Trustpilot.
- Mentions of negative comments being removed: Businesses may limit negative reviews by flagging them or paying the platform. Look for reviewers who claim their attempts to leave criticisms were blocked or deleted.
Of all the ways online reviews can be misleading, artificially inflated business profiles are the most common. If you take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s an increased vigilance against the tactics businesses use to seem better than they are.
Watch Out for Signs of Competitor Tampering
It probably doesn’t surprise you that businesses often artificially inflate their online reputations by offering incentives, discouraging negative comments, and purchasing fake reviews outright.
You might not have known that businesses also use similar tactics to hurt their competitors. In one survey, 18% of businesses reported they’d consider sabotaging a peer’s reputation online if they knew they’d get away with it. Since you can’t rely on people to out themselves, the real numbers are probably higher.
Many signs that reveal fake positive reviews apply to fake negative ones, such as bad writing, generic comments, suspicious profiles, and sudden increases in review numbers. You may also see the business owner replying to these reviews and refuting their claims or proving that the writer was never a real customer.
Don’t forget your own bias when looking at online reviews. Just as reviewers are prone to highlighting the negative, so too are we more likely to latch onto the criticisms people leave.
Maybe I should consider giving some of those four-star Mexican spots a shot.
Putting It All Together
Online reviews are an indispensable lens into a business’s reputation, especially when you’re making a high-stakes decision involving sensitive personal information or a significant investment of time or money.
However, you must learn to maintain a skeptical attitude and evaluate them critically instead of taking them at face value. Get familiar with the most popular platforms and practice analyzing online reviews individually and in aggregate. Always pull reviews from multiple platforms and look for patterns or grossly conflicting opinions.
Your ability to gauge a business’s online reputation will improve with practice. Eventually, you’ll be able to quickly extract insight from online reviews and make better purchase decisions.
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