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How to spot fake online reviews


The power of collective wisdom is an amazing thing. Thanks to technology, you can tap into endless online reviews to help you do everything from book sweet accommodations at an unknown hotel in an unfamiliar city, to discover a gluten-free soufflé joint right in your own backyard!

Some of the more popular reviews sites out there include Yelp.com, Kudzu.com and TripAdvisor.com. Yelp excels for reviews of independent eateries, Kudzu is great when you want reviews of service businesses, and TripAdvisor is the preeminent stop for hotel reviews.

But how do you know which online reviews at those sites are legit and which aren't to be trusted? After all, many businesses have family or friends write glowing reviews and present them as unbought and unbossed advice when in fact they're very much an inside job.

Money Adviser, a special imprint of Consumer Reports, recently ran an article that had some eye-opening info about Angie's List. Historically, I've been neutral on Angie's List. But while Angie's List says they are a consumer-driven service supported by membership fees, Money Adviser  reveals that 70% of their revenue comes from ads purchased by the companies being rated.

So they're playing both sides. It's hard to give unbiased reviews -- even if your heart is in the right place -- when somebody's paying all that money.

On another note, Wired magazine created a mocking flowchart titled 'Should I Trust This Yelp Review?' that exposes the tiresome absurdity of sorting through reams of fake reviews to find a real one. It's like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack! 

Consumer advocate Clark Howard has some advice on the situation to help steer you right. And you won't even have to tax your brain with flowcharts.

  • Spot the easy red flags. One easy way to get a feel for whether or not you're reading a legit review is to read a poster's reviews of businesses, products, or services other than just the one you're looking for. If they use the same cut-and-paste language in every review, you have an indication that they may be a paid reviewer putting out false information.
  • Look for at least 2 dozen reviews for a given business. You want to see a lot of opinions before you can know that there's a credible trend happening. A handful of stray reviews won't cut it. Generally, at least 2 dozen reviews is a good guideline.
  • Throw out the excessively positive and negative.  Let's face it: There are people who will find something to be grumpy about no matter what. And others love life and always write in superlatives. But over time, you can glean the collective wisdom. If every single review you read about a business is glowing, or every single one is negative, then you know something's wrong.
  • Know the special considerations for travel reviews. TripAdvisor.com is a great site for hotel reviews, but again you've got to be careful. As Clark says, "I don't pay attention to any reviews written by British people because they aren't accustomed to our hotels and indiscriminately love everything. Ditto for New Yorkers who are used to cramped conditions and think any room is spacious even if it's the size of a shoebox. Nor do I pay any attention to whiners about room service. I never order room service! What I am looking for is the preponderance of opinion."

What other tips do you have for ferreting out the good reviews from the bad? Write in below and let us know!

Clark Howard is a nationally syndicated consumer advice expert



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