Dorothy Crenshaw September 10, 2009 | 12:07:18

Could Review Fraud Kill Consumer-Generated Media?

Trust is a rare commodity these days. Consumers are skeptical of traditional institutions – and traditional marketing. Which is why I was a bit surprised by the results of the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey. Apparently, most of us place our trust in “friends we know and virtual strangers.”  Ninety percent of the 25,000 Internet users surveyed believe product recommendations from people they know, and fully 70 percent say they trust anonymous consumer opinions posted online.

Now, to put the study’s results in perspective, the respondents don’t consider strangers any more credible than, say, a brand’s website, which also came out at 70 percent. But, online reviews are way ahead of banner ads or commercial emails. That’s impressive. Word-of-mouth recommendations are powerful, and on the Web, that power is magnified exponentially. Which is why PR and other firms have been known to fabricate product reviews on behalf of clients. Sure, we’ve all posted reviews as a favor to friends, or to support clients, but I’m talking about a more nefarious practice.

The latest case of review fraud, which came to light in a Mobilecrunch post about West Coast firm Reverb PR, may be just the tip of the Web iceberg. Reverb’s ethically questionable practice of having interns post five-star reviews on Apple’s App Store for its clients’ products, and the ensuing storm of controversy, got me thinking. This kind of thing is is rampant in the travel and restaurant categories, among others. It’s clearly wrong, and repugnant. But, ethics aside, will bogus reviews ruin peer commentary on the Web? Could consumer-generated media go the way of Nigerian money scams?

Here’s hoping it may not be so. First, people are getting smarter about comments and reviews. They’re learning that anything that seems too good to be true usually is. (Note to online astroturfers: mix in a few mild criticisms and knock off half a star every now and then…it looks better)

More importantly, I have to believe in the wisdom of the crowd – the real crowd, that is. Bogus reviews – no matter how glowing and skillfully done – can only work in the short-term. If the product isn’t up to snuff, or if it’s truly inferior, the disappointed customers will let it be known. As any customer service rep can tell you, unhappy customers tell many, many more people about their experiences than do happy ones.

Finally, it may be that we’re conditioned to believe what we read online because of the vetting role that journalists have played. As more people become aware of review fraud and other questionable practices, the need for credible, impartial, and properly vetted content will increase. That won’t knock out honest consumer-generated content, but it just may shift the balance back to favor the “traditional” editorial role.

Maybe the Web isn’t really so different, after all.

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