The internet is great. It has improved commerce hundreds of times over: it’s made it possible to do comparison shopping, find out more about a product before buying it, and even allowed us to research lawyers, doctors, and anyone we may want to do business with – all before we pick up a real product or go in the door of the business. And while it’s great to be able to go to a company’s website and get more information about the technical specs of a product, or go to a restaurant’s website to check their menu and store hours, or even find out where a particular doctor got their degree; it’s often not quite enough to close the deal. Part of human nature is that we don’t quite trust the salesman – of course the Ford dealer is going to tell me the Ford Pinto is the best car ever made – however, we value and trust recommendations that come from family, friends, and other customers.
This increased consumer desire for validation from other customers has left a vacuum – it has led to the creation of many ratings and review sites where people can give their opinions about products they have purchased or businesses they have transacted with, but the vacuum has also been filled by some people and systems that aren’t designed to improve the e-commerce experience, rather they are created specifically to take advantage of this new consumer behavior.
Much of the abuse that takes place in the e-commerce space centers around online ratings and reviews – because reviews play such an important role not only in the actual purchase process, but also in the exposure products get on certain sites, there is a large group of people (including businesses large and small) who prefer to spend their time trying to figure out how to game the system, rather than focusing on improving their business or product.
In fact, a simple search on Fiverr for “positive reviews” returns over 500 results – people willing to write fake reviews for a few dollars in return. The posters are willing to write reviews on Amazon, Yelp, Google Places, Yahoo, iTunes, and pretty much any other place that accepts ratings and/or reviews.
Just two examples from the many (notice that there are no shortage of people buying):
The problem is that the majority of the system is weak. Very few of the sites have any way to check to see if the person (or bot) leaving the review ever purchased the product or had anything to do with the business. Some sites try to check to see if a review “seems fake” with automated algorithms, but I have seen very few cases where anyone is even making an effort. The saddest thing is that in cases where the system is weak, this practice is all the more prevalent.
There is hope, however. There was a time when most forums and blogs allowed comments from anonymous users, but that time is passing. Most of the blogs I visit require some sort of social network login to be able to post a comment, and although these systems aren’t infallible, they are a significant improvement over the way things have been done in the past.
There is also some good news on the ratings and review front. I have actually been doing some consulting work for a great startup in Utah whose goal is to essentially rid the internet of fake reviews. This is a big harry audacious goal, but I think they are on the right track. They have some really great technology, and should actually be going to market within the next couple of weeks. Here’s a pretty cool video they’ve put together: