As a savvy consumer, you're too smart and cynical to be taken in by cheap hype and ad campaigns. You ignore the buzzwords and slogans and TV spots full of CGI and dubstep and go right to the reviews. That's where you find out whether or not something is worth your ad dollars: hearing from the unbiased people who've actually tried the product.
Only, well, there's a few things you should know about that ...
#5. Companies Fill "Customer Review" Sections With Fakes
If you've ever bought or rented something online, you've probably spent some time reading user reviews on sites like Yelp before making a decision -- after all, 72 percent of consumers trust online reviews as personal recommendations. To most people, a five-star Amazon rating is the same thing as their best friend telling them to buy that book.
Also, 72 percent of consumers named the Internet as their best friend.
Sure, the cynical among us know that some of those reviews are planted by the sellers -- they're the ones that are a little too transparent in quoting the manufacturer's ad campaign ("I found that this vacuum cleaner provided a revolutionary cleaning experience thanks to its cutting edge Vortex(TM) technology"), but if you had to guess, what percentage of reviews are fakes? Five percent? Ten percent?
More like up to 30 percent -- almost one in every three reviews you read could be plants, depending on the product. So where do companies get so many fake reviews? The answer is that, like anything else in the world, you can buy them online.
"Reputation Warehouse, this is Linda speaking, how may I up your street cred?"
Yes, there are sites exclusively devoted to this. In 2010, Todd Rutherford started the (now defunct) website GettingBookReviews.com, which would write a positive review of a client's book on Amazon for $99. For those looking for even more praise, $499 got you 20 reviews and $999 got you 50. Rutherford ended up making $28,000 a month selling bullshit reviews, mostly to freelance writers who wanted publicity for their self-published books. And it worked: Author John Locke commissioned a shitload of fake reviews from Rutherford and, within five months, he became the first-ever person to sell a million e-books.
"Short answer: Put legs on the cover. Also, by cheating."
Rutherford's site ended up closing after Google frowned on his business, but as long as there are desperate writers who will buy them and even more desperate ones who will write them, fake reviews will continue to thrive. And they don't even have to be credible to work: As one Texas businessman tells it, for only $100 you can get someone on another continent to write you 200 positive reviews for whatever you want. In this case, the clearly fake reviews were filtered by Yelp, but other sites kept them up, and now the Texan's business is one of the top results in his category on Google. We're just gonna assume it has something to do with butt plugs.
Everyone wins, right? Well, except the consumers who ended up going to that guy's store or buying those shitty books, obviously. But, believe it or not, it gets worse ...
#4. Companies Stifle Negative Reviews by Threatening Customers Who Write Them
If you're looking to rent a place and the landlords don't have any glaringly bad reviews out there, you know you're safe, right? If they were running a scam, past tenants would surely have said something. Since when do people hesitate to bitch on the Internet?
Since humanity decided that the world would be a better place if ... pffffft, sorry, we couldn't finish that with a straight face.
Since they started getting fined for it.
Say you want to go on a nice vacation in another state with your spouse, so you rent a house to stay there for five days. Unfortunately, the house has multiple problems, so after being denied a refund by the owners, you do the only thing you can do: You leave a bad review on the Internet. You then find that they have charged you an extra $500 on your credit card, just for posting that review. Yes, this can (and has) happened.
"We're trying to figure out how to send electric shocks through Yelp, but until then, this will do."
Renters Tom and Terri Dorow were contacted by their rental agency, Progressive Management Concepts, and told to delete the "unauthorized review" they'd posted on VRBO.com. It turns out that the agreement they signed when they rented the house (which you'd assume would include just the usual "You broke it, you bought it" and "Don't shit in the pool" clauses) contained fine print that prevented them from saying anything about the house without the owners' authorization. Technically, they couldn't even say good things about it.
"Well, we definitely stayed in a solid, three-dimensional construct."
But this is their fault for not reading the full contract, right? And it could never happen to you because you always do that, right? Well, the couple claims that they only received the papers weeks after paying for the rental, and at that point it would have been too late to back out anyway. In the end, they only got their money back after they agreed to delete the offending comment, plus an extra $200, presumably just to make them feel dirty.
Apparently this is part of a whole trend in the rental business, and the possible fines for leaving "unsolicited reviews" go up to $10,000. Oh, and you'll be blacklisted from renting any property managed by that company, too. And that's all legal.
"Also, we get one of your children. And no gingers, either; one of the good kids."
Meanwhile, the owners claim that they're just protecting themselves from customers who threaten to leave negative reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com if they don't get free stuff. If you're not a douchebag and honestly didn't like the place, then tough shit. The only real way to deal with the fine is by contacting your credit card company and trying to deduct the charge. Also, you know, do read the contracts before you sign them, guys.
So if user reviews are so unreliable, you should just rely on the word of professional critics, right?
#3. Publications Get Paid for Positive Reviews, and Critics Get Fired for Not Going Along
Notice how video game websites tend to run ads for the very games they're covering? What do you suppose happens when the game reviewers want to give a bad score to the same game that's paying their salary that week? You could ask Jeff Gerstmann, a former editorial director at GameSpot.com who got fired in 2007 after two mildly negative reviews caused Eidos Interactive and Sony to threaten to pull ad revenue from the site. You see, those companies spent money advertising the games, and it was implied that with that ad money would come positive reviews, regardless of the quality of the actual games.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Variety magazine was sued for publishing a negative review of a movie, which, again, is what they're supposed to be there for. Calibra Pictures argued that they bought a promotional package from Variety that promised to build their movie Iron Cross Oscar hype in its advertisements, but apparently they forgot to include a "Keep quiet if you think the movie sucks" clause in their contract. When a freelancer panned the film in a review, Calibra sued Variety and even got them to pull the review for a while, before a judge dismissed the lawsuit.
On the basis that "No one's ever heard of this movie, ever."
And if the site won't pull the review, there are other ways to smite them from the face of the Earth. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it's extremely easy for copyright holders to fire off takedown notices that get websites automatically delisted from Google, so why not just file one against whoever said something mean about you? In August 2012, both Universal Music Group and Microsoft incorrectly served takedown notices to innocent blogs that just happened to host negative reviews of their latest turds (Drake's album Take Care and Windows 8, respectively). None of those sites hosted or linked to illegal content, but Google practically erased them from the Internet right away. That's how the DMCA works -- you're presumed guilty until you prove your innocence, so an accusation from a huge company is all it takes.
Maybe that's the sort of thing you'd expect from the music industry and a software monopoly, but you know who you wouldn't expect it from? Doctors. Yet there is a group called Medical Justice that consists of nearly 2,500 doctors who, when not going on Yelp and posing as satisfied patients, use copyright to remove negative reviews written by patients. They do this by having the patient sign a contract that gives the company ownership rights to any online reviews. That way, if someone writes a review that the doctor doesn't like, a DMCA takedown is used and the review is forcibly removed.
"And that isn't the only thing we'll forcibly remove if you don't leave that keyboard."