Are You Faking It?

Reading product reviews is a favorite past time of a new breed of shopaholics, those with internet access. There’s a joke about the couple who goes to the department store to buy a new table lamp. The husband finds a suitable model and asks the wife if she’s on board. She loves the lamp, but stops to check her smartphone for product reviews. After a minute of reading she looks up and says, “Nope, that’s a bad model, the string is too short. Wait, here’s a good one, it’s got great reviews – oh, but it’s $300.” The couple goes home empty handed and recycles an old lamp. The point of course, is that product reviews can become overwhelming; which may lead to a negative shopping experience for consumers who take them too seriously.

Still, whatever the experience for end users, product reviews do impact market trends; sometimes substantially. Marketing experts are well aware of this fact and some have  gone to great, even unscrupulous, lengths to tip the scales in favor of their brand. It’s not only fake (or paid – which is just as bad) reviews, however, that muddy the waters; new research suggests that some real customers are leaving unduly harsh reviews for products they have never purchased – without any known financial advantage; why, remains unclear.

The real McCoy

While browsing product reviews is a great way to get the inside scoop on a product, some caution is in order. Avoid being taken in by fake reviews, paid stunts, jokes, or just poor information; the following tips will help you to focus on the genuine and ignore the rest.

Watch the language

You can often tell from the content alone when a review is fake. Real users leave reviews which describe genuine experiences. They typically don’t include marketing jargon, product numbers (unless truly relevant) or hyper-excited positive feedback. Instead you’ll find descriptions of specific ways in which a product worked or didn’t work in a particular setting.

Timing

Only about 2% of customers ever leave a product review. This means that for new products, or products with few buyers, genuine reviews may be limited. Certainly you should expect real reviews to be spaced out over time. If you spot a string of positive (or negative, companies pay for those to – aimed at competitors) reviews all placed within a short time window, chances are they were spammed; move on.

Trusted buyers

Larger retailers like Amazon are savvy to the fake review game, they’ve even made a joke out of the funniest spoofs, and they’ve taken steps to let buyers know which reviewers are worth listening to. By linking product reviews with purchase history, Amazon can highlight which reviews were left by people who actually used a product. Statistics show that those real buyers who bother to leave reviews tend to do so somewhat regularly. Watch for one time postings by people who don’t appear to have much shopping history; these are often fake.

A Common Sense bottom line

When all is said and done, the only real test is one of plausibility. Use your gut reaction to a review; your “common sense”. If it sounds off, it probably is off. A good rule of thumb is to avoid relying too heavily on any single review. Look for patterns. If many people are all complaining about, or recommending, a specific aspect of a product, that’s a good sign of legitimacy. People who are too excited about a product, for good or bad, tend to leave biased reviews. Look to the middle of the road and you should be able to glean valuable information from a list of reviews without losing your head. In the end, product reviews should be only one part of your larger shopping strategy. Price points, shipping (time and cost), suitability for your particular need, style, and many other such considerations can be just as, or even more, important than what others thought of the product. Reviews are a tool, not a definitive guide to buying.

Implementing a product review strategy

If you sell a product or service that you think would benefit from a product review system, your job is made all the more difficult by the prevalence of fake reviews. While product reviews are certainly a feature of the evolving social network that is increasingly dominating purchasing choices, implementing reviews also puts you at the mercy of the consumer. The key to using reviews effectively is, as with most aspects of web design and marketing, rooted in quality. Haphazardly slapping together a review structure that doesn’t provide clear value to your consumers will likely do more harm than good. While the mechanics of actual implementation are beyond the scope of this article, our one word of advice here is; don’t fake it. Buying paid promotional reviews is a very poor idea, both because your readers will eventually pick up on it even if only subtly, and because if you’re caught it’s a scandal you don’t need. 

Editor

Kjeld Lindsted Kjeld Lindsted
Content Architecture, Copywriting, and Editing
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