Fake, misleading online reviews create growing concerns for shoppers

Survey finds majority of online shoppers at least consider reviews before buying

ROANOKE, Va. – Online shopping has made it easier than ever to find anything you need or want at your fingertips, and many shoppers rely on online reviews to help them make their purchase.

A 2016 survey found more than 80 percent of online shoppers at least consider the reviews before buying an item for the first time.

"They take the word of other people who have experienced the product or service and they make a decision based on those experiences," said Cayce Myers, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Communication.

However, there is a growing problem with fake online reviews that can deceive or mislead shoppers.

"There are fake reviews out there and there's also reviews that are maybe true, but maybe not as transparent as necessary," Myers said.

Myers has studied the impact and issues surrounding online reviews. He said concerns can not only arise from who is giving the review, but also if someone is paid for their review.

"The law has tried to kind of catch up with that a little bit and say you have to disclose if you are a paid endorser or if you're someone that has been given a sample or something like that to give a review of that product, because that's a different kind of relationship than if you were just to go out and purchase a product on your own," Myers said.

One website that has made it their business to help you sort through what is real and what is not, specifically on Amazon, is ReviewMeta.

Tommy Noonan, the site's founder, explained how it works.

“What it first does is it actually visits the Amazon.com website and collects all of the data on all of the reviews that are published about that product,” Noonan said. “Then we run the reviews through 15 different tests.”

"It will throw out the reviews considered untrustworthy and then it will recalculate the average product score, based on only the reviews we deemed trustworthy."

All users have to do is copy the product’s URL and paste it to the ReviewMeta site.

ReviewMeta does not analyze products or their quality, only the product's reviews. Noonan cautioned that the presence of potentially inauthentic or fake reviews is not necessarily a reflection on product quality.

"A lot of sellers will make a good, quality product," Noonan said. "They'll seed the reviews with questionable ones, with biased ones, with potentially fake ones and once they start getting some sales the honest reviewers will say 'Hey, this is actually a really good product' and the product will do well on Amazon."

Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, is also fighting back, stating on its site that the company has “a zero-tolerance policy for any review designed to mislead or manipulate customers” and has “built mechanisms, both manual and automated, that remove reviews that violate our guidelines.”

Noonan said consumers can also keep an eye out for suspicious reviews by actually reading the reviews and not just looking at a product's star rating, checking the most recent reviews first and returning poor quality products.

“I always recommend if you don’t like a product, if you feel like you were swindled, absolutely send it back and send that financial message to Amazon and the seller that you won’t put up with inferior products and misleading descriptions or reviews.”

Experts say electronics tend to have the highest percentages of fake or untrustworthy reviews.

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