Forget paid journos, beware the paid aam aadmi reviewer

Fake Review Writer is actually a bona fide job category these days.

You can find it on the website Freelancer.com alongside more traditional freelancing jobs such as Java programmers and telemarketers.

Someone wants 5K fake Facebook likes as fast as possible. At the time I checked, there were three bids for that project.

Another project is headlined – “only Indian writer needed". It is looking for someone who can write 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, is online for 6-8 hours daily and will get paid Rs 10 per 100 words. Skills required include ghostwriting and SEO.

When buying online I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. When I was trying to figure out a resort to stay in near Corbett National Park this year I didn’t go by the glowing Photoshopped websites of the resort. I read the reviews on TripAdvisor to find out which “eco-resort” was actually a dump where the wildlife meant cockroaches.

 Forget paid journos, beware the paid aam aadmi reviewer

Can online reviews be trusted anymore? Reuters.

The resort I chose worked out just fine. But later I discovered I was plain lucky. TripAdvisor allows anyone to post reviews unlike Priceline that only allows customers who have booked rooms through them. According to Time magazine, TripAdvisor had recently rather tellingly changed the slogan in its online review section from “Reviews you can trust” to “Reviews from our community".

Online reviews were supposed to save us from the tyranny of  THE reviewer. The reviewer, as gatekeeper to  hotels, movies, restaurants, digital cameras has become a suspect figure. Why should we trust him we wondered darkly. Who appointed him judge and jury? How did we know he wasn’t in the pay of slimy corporations or getting restaurant freebies?

The internet promised to be the great leveler. Its democracy would deliver us the truth where the good would overwhelm the corrupt by sheer numbers. By empowering the aam aadmi we would all benefit for the aam aadmi was unbiased and would give us the unvarnished truth.

Except it turns out that the aam aadmi is just as gullible and corruptible as the paid journalist and happy to peddle someone else’s “truth” for  Rs 10 per 100 words.

As many as four out of ten online reviews are phony or biased according to Bing Liu, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois in Chicago who is developing software to detect fake reviews.

Part of the problem is we all want to see glowing five-star reviews before we plop down our money. But real reviewers tend to be a little more restrained. So companies have come up with all kinds of strategies to get those ecstatic reviews.

Some just buy them outright, in bulk, if needed. The New York Times just profiled Todd Jason Rutherford whose GettingBookReviews.com sold one book review for $99. But if you paid him $499 he would churn out 20 glowing reviews. He said he made $28,000 a month because there are so many self-published books out there that want that five-star review on their Amazon page. There is nothing so unnerving for a newbie author as that blank page with the exhortation “Be the first to review this product".

Other businesses do the review-swapping ring. Yelp, the consumer review website, discovered a business ring in California where dentists, therapists, lawyers, real estate agents were all giving each other glowing reviews in the hope that a rising review lifts all boats. They even hosted reviewing contests.

So is this cheating? Yelp thinks so. The members of the ring don’t think so. According to them they were just scratching each other’s backs, not really lying. The contests were “meant to fire us up and help increase each other’s business,”  Jeff Levine, a paralegal told the Los Angeles Times. His business notched up 15 five star reviews from the network.

When I started online shopping the thing I was most worried about was security. I had visions of my credit card number being stolen. I was skeptical if the product would ever arrive. I was afraid of all the personal information I was giving out to some random website. I didn’t even know if the website I was on was real or some front for a shady credit card number gathering outfit in Nigeria.

But the lure of online was too strong. It was just too darn convenient and seductive. For example, a colleague’s brother is happy to pay for the shipping charges because now he can buy things he could never find in Trivandrum – for example, long self-retracting garden hosepipes. The world has become our marketplace. Eventually I learned to trust not just Amazon.com but some complete stranger selling a rare used book in some small town somewhere. Flipkart reassured me that I didn’t have to pay up until the product showed up at my door.  I still won’t buy clothes online because I can’t try them out but companies keep reassuring me that if I don’t like what I get, they’ll take it back, no questions asked.

Online commerce goes against everything we associate with retail – pressing the mango, feeling the sari, reading the body language of the shopkeeper. Instead it’s a giant gamble of blind trust. It was the reviews that reassured me that online commerce was genuine, that it was OK because all those other people like me were doing it. I told myself that if I chop off the most glowing and the most vituperative reviews, I should have a pretty good sense of what the average person thinks about a product. Now it turns out that the reviews can be the Achilles heel.

Nielsen’s recent Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages shows that consumers across the world are still placing more faith in recommendations from people they know and online consumer reviews than ever before. Even in India, which still heavily relies of old-fashioned print and television ads, online reviews have become the secondmost trusted form of advertising, jumping up  four notches from the last one.

In India, where online commerce is just taking off, and paid journalism is a constant refrain, everyone, from consumers to companies, should be extra-vigilant about fake reviews. If all the reviews, or even enough reviews, turn out to be fake, the whole cookie crumbles because nervous customers will flee. Even a few bad apples risk upending the entire apple cart here

That’s why now even as Fake Review Writer is a job category on Freelancer.com, fake review detection is a whole new field of computer algorithms. Cornell University has come up with ReviewSkpetic.com. You can paste an online review and it will tell you whether it thinks it’s a fake one or not. It says it can do a better job than most people can. Apparently there is an “intriguing correspondence between the linguistic structure of deceptive reviews and fiction writing.”

So get ready to spend an extra hour putting the reviews through the ReviewSkpetic test before you fish out that credit card. Or perhaps Freelancer.com will have to add a new job category soon – a reviewer of reviews. But the question is how do we trust that person?

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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2012 15:02:59 IST