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Lets Talk About Amazon Reviews: How We Spot the Fakes | The Wirecutter

Like a lot of people, we read Amazon reviews as part of our product research. Getting broad feedback on a product can be very useful when we’re looking for widespread issues or seeing how a company handles warranty claims. However, as time has gone by, weve begun to read userreviews with a far more critical eye. Although many reviews on Amazon are legitimate, more and more sketchy companies are turning to compensated Amazon reviews to inflate star ratings and to drum up purchases.

Have you ever seen some random product for sale thats from some brand youve never heard of, and the company has no websiteyet itswidget has somehow garnered 15,000 five-star reviews since last week? We sure have. This situation is likely the result of a compensated-review program. Such compensated reviewsorchestrated by businesses that cater to companies that want more public positive feedbackviolateAmazons terms of use but are difficult to police. (This arrangement is not to be confused with Amazons

Vine program

, in whichcompanies provide products to usersin exchange for an honest opinion, although those reviews can be problematic in their own way. You can read our

thoughts on them below

.)

The compensated-review process is simple: Businesses paid to create dummy accounts purchase products from Amazon and write four- and five-star reviews. Buying the product makes it tougher for Amazon to police the reviews, becausethe reviewsare in fact based on verified purchases. The dummy accounts buy and review all sorts of things, and some of the more savvy pay-for-review sites even have their faux reviewers pepper in a few negative reviews of products made and sold by brands that arent clients to create a sense of authenticity. In fact, for extra cash, a company can pay one of these firms to write negative reviews of a competitors product. Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth has written about this practice as well.

Super shady, we know. And Amazon has a history of trying hard to deal with offendersand shut them down. In fact, in April, Amazon sued another round of companiesthat are accused of selling fraudulent reviews. But by the time those companies arecaught, their clients have already made a bunch of sales, and the fraudulent reviewers will likely pop up again under new names to repeat the process.

Want to know more? Wirecutter headphones editorLauren Dragan talks to Marketplace Tech about compensated Amazon reviews and how to tell real crowdsourced opinions from astroturfing.

How toavoid getting scammed

You havea few ways to suss out what may be a fake review. The easiest way is to use Fakespot. This siteallows you to paste the link to any Amazon product and receive a score regarding the likelihood of fake reviews.

For example, we ran an analysis on some headphones we found during a recent research sweep for our guide aboutcheap in-ear headphones. You can see from the results below that the headphones reviews didnt score so well.

We corresponded with an official spokesperson for Fakespot to get a better idea of where these results come from. He said:

The quick answer is that every analysis does two simultaneous things: we analyze every single review posted and we review each reviewer and every review that reviewer has ever posted on that account. We take all that data and run it through our proprietary engine which grades everything and looks for patterns.

The engine adjusts based on the prevailing patterns used by proven fake reviewers and their reviews, so while there is some base criteria, were able to use artificial intelligence to keep ahead of the imposters. Every fake reviewer has patterns. And the more data we collect via analyses completed, the more our engine is able to adapt and learn. The secret sauce is not only in the engine but the ability to run the data in the quickest amount of time possible; ensuring swift delivery of an accurate product.

Thelikelihood of knowing for certain if a review is fake

To get some perspective, we spoke with Bing Liu, a professor in the department of computer science at theUniversity of Illinois at Chicago, whose focuses include sentiment analysis, opinion mining, and lifelong machine learning. Hehas written textbooks on the subjects. We wanted to know his opinion on whether it ispossible for a program or group of programs to evaluate reviews and correctly determine their validity. Lius thoughts:

It is hard to say without knowing their techniques. The problem with this task is that there is often no hard proof that the detection is actually correct unless the author of the actual fake reviews (not made up fake reviews) from a review hosting site confirms it. Of course, it is easier if the company actually hosts reviews (e.g., Amazon or Yelp) because they can analyze the public information that the general public can see and also (more importantly) their internal data which tracks all the activities after a person comes to the website. A lot of unusual behaviors can be detected. Unfortunately, such data is not available to people outside the site.

In other words: Unless you have a way to confirm with the person (or company) writing the review, or you are Amazon, its all conjecture. Keep in mind that these analyses are based on Fakespots techniques, so we have to take their word for it. We dont have a way to verify how precise they are. However, you can make educated guesses. And if youre in a hurry or in need of a second opinion, Fakespot can be a useful tool when you’re considering a purchase.

All of that aside, we had a similar opinion when we read the Rxvoit reviews ourselves, and we can tell you a few factors that we use when evaluating customerreviews.

How we spot a phony review

What aspects of the Rxvoit headphones reviews felt funny to us? Well, first of all, we noticed that a lot of the positive reviews happened within a few days of each other. That indicates to us that people madea push for reviews to happen on a timeline.

In fact, at the time we did our research sweep, the Rxvoit headphones had a five-star rating and a few hundred reviews posted within a week or two. This, for a company that isvery new (as in, it has only one productthese headphones) and one we had never heard of. That’s a red flag.

Second, within those reviews, we saw a lot of the same wording, and even similarly staged user photos. It was as though someone said, Hey, take a picture of a close-up of your hands holding the headphones over a countertop. While we know that people do post pictures to accompany their reviews, it seemed too coincidental that they were all stagedin the same way, all over a span of a few days.

And lastly, we couldnt find a company website for Rxvoit. While the lack of a Web presence isnt in itself an indication of a shady manufacturer or a signal to look out for fake reviews, it is worth noting. When your only point of contact for a company is through Amazon, you have no way of accessing customer service directly. This means warranty claims are tough to redeem. It also means its tougher for a significant number of people to just happen to stumble across a product and decide to purchase it, which makes a sudden spurt of reviews very unlikely.

What does this look like in the wild? Well, heres an example of reviews that are accused of being fake from the most recent Amazon lawsuit.

Notice how all the reviews appeared within days of oneanother. They also reference the same key thing: the light on the cable. In fact, two of the three use the exact phrase how bright the lights on the cable are. Thats a good indication thatsomething issketchy. And althoughwe dont know what product the lawsuits example refers to, if the products manufacturerwas brand-new and had a few hundred of these kinds of reviews within a few days, chances are good that the company paid for them in some way.

The Vine program

The Vine program, and similar methods of eliciting feedback, give away products for free (or sell them ata deep discount) to potential customers vetted (by Amazon in the case of the Vine program) for the helpfulness of their reviews, in exchange for an honest review. While these sorts of reviews are far more ethical than paid-for reviews, they can also be a little problematic. Even if the way the review was obtained is disclosed on product pages, several aspects of the purchasing process dont get considered as part of these programs.

For example, returns and long-term use arentpart of the evaluation. When you get something for free, youre less likely to follow up on breakage concerns or customer service issues. Additionally, if the reviewer didnt actually buy the product, that person doesn’t take the purchase and shipping processes into consideration.

But most important, receiving something for free or nearly free can greatly affectone’sopinions. You might notice how few of the reviews through Vine and similar programs are negative or even critical. This isnt a case of reviewers intentionally being dishonest, but rather the result of unconscious positive bias. Not paying for an item can make difficulties with that item seem less irritating.

Additionally, reviewers may givetheir opinions on items forwhich they have no expertise or real experience and therefore have no frame of reference abouthow well something works by comparison. Its hard to say how good something is if you dont know what else is out there.

So, just know that you cant always believe what you see when it comes to five-star reviews. While some overnight successes do exist, often a four-star product with authentic reviews and a proven track record is a better buy. Look beyond the overall star rating and read with a critical eye, and youll be in good shape.

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