Why online reviews are basically worthless. This is especially the case for health-related products from small companies that are competing with inferior alternatives from mega-corporations.
A common request by members of the recently launched Healthy Home Plus is assistance with vetting food and supplement brands they are considering for purchase. Sometimes the product was recommended by a doctor, other times it is being heavily promoted online.
There are a number of ways I use to investigate whether a brand is on the up and up with its products. Consideration of online reviews, however, is one method I rarely use.
Why is this?
Online Reviews are Usually Astroturfed
The reason is that online reviews are basically worthless for one of two reasons:
- Positive reviews are frequently astroturfed by employees/paid contractors/friends of the company that actually makes the product.
- Negative reviews are frequently astroturfed by employees/paid contractors/friends of a competitive product.
In other words, companies carefully stage online reviews to benefit their bottom line in many cases. This is known as astroturfing. Other examples include paying for a positive media story in a newspaper, magazine or popular “health” TV show.
These types of reviews disguised to look real are, for lack of a better term, another form of fake news.
What’s more…it’s very difficult to tell accurate reviews from those specifically designed to manipulate your purchase decision.
Amazon reviews are by far the worst! But, any online site is susceptible to abuse.
And the problem is getting worse by the day…
Review-bombing is the term used to describe when online trolls descend upon a product that has a message they don’t like, flooding it with negative reviews.
Books that contain a politically incorrect message are frequently targets of such attacks.
Foods, supplements and even restaurants that contain or serve ingredients that infuriate PETA activists can also find themselves targeted as well.
Natalie Hitchens, head of home products for Which?, a company that promotes informed consumer choice, had this to say:
Our research suggests that Amazon is losing the battle against fake reviews – with shoppers bombarded by dubious comments aimed at artificially boosting products from unknown brands.
Amazon must do more to purge its websites of unreliable and fake reviews if it is to maintain the trust of its millions of customers.
Tommy Noonan, chief technology officer of review analysis firm ReviewMeta, reports that of the 1.8 million unverified Amazon reviews posted in March 2019, 99.6% were five-star. By comparison, during 2017-2018, the number of unverified reviews averaged fewer than 300,000 per month, only 75% of which were five-star.
This problem isn’t just concerning for major online retailers. It’s happening on smaller websites as well.
Efforts to Weed Out Fake Reviews are Failing
Noonan goes on to say that the phenomenon of fake online reviews really started to take off in late 2017.
What’s more, companies with massive resources like Amazon are failing big time to stop it. This despite investing heavily in both manual and automated systems to weed out the fakes.
Can you imagine smaller companies that put out a great product (that competes with low-quality alternatives from mega-corporations) trying to fix the problem with little to no resources?
Thus, the smaller the company and the more “politically incorrect” the product, the more you should be suspicious of any online reviews…either positive or negative.
In short, alternative methods are necessary to figure out if it’s worth your money to buy it. Here are some examples. All take time, but there are no shortcuts, unfortunately!
- Search the medical literature to assess whether marketing claims are true.
- Fully vet processing methods and ingredient lists (this includes “inactive” ingredients).
- Calling the company to ask probing questions.
Which Reviews are Valid?
The only online reviews that are valid, in my opinion, are those where you know the person either via a trustworthy online relationship or IRL (in real life) and you have verified that they actually use the product themselves.
Old reviews prior to about 2016 when the fake review trend started to take off would probably be legit as well.
Note that even “verified purchaser” reviews on Amazon are suspect. This is because competitors can easily purchase a product and then do a negative review posing as an average Joe consumer.
Do you use online reviews as part of your product vetting process? Do you trust them or feel that most are manipulative in nature?
(1) Amazon’s Fake Review Problem is Getting Worse
(2) Can you trust Online Reviews?
I’m sorry to here Amazon reviews are questionable, but I started to get suspicious myself. I rarely leave a 5 star rating and I have been approached by companies to post a review for a free product, which I declined. I now only look at the 3 star reviews. Also, you can click on the reviewer and see previous posts, which can tell a lot. Lastly, I have no problem returning products that don’t live up to my expectations.
I’m with you; I do the same with 3-star reviews. If their ‘negative’ would be a deal-breaker for me, then that’s news I can use. Otherwise, I think I can get a good feel for whether the product is a fit for me. Thanks for the tip about the ‘previous posts.’ Didn’t know that one…
Sarah Pope MGA
You need to be aware that sometimes stuff is completely made up in these negative reviews, so you can’t even believe what they say and they really do look authentic in at least some of the cases I’ve seen.
For example, I’ve noticed that one kitchen appliance that I’ve used for years has some negative reviews on Amazon that say it is “fragile”, “breaks or chips easily” and contains toxic heavy metals, none of which is true!
Yeah, I forgot about that. I tell people the same thing to look at 3 star reviews and that’s the ones I click on for a “quick” review since liars will never do that and phony haters won’t likely do that either. and if it sounds good I peruse the rest of it.
Sarah Pope MGA
In my experience, paid astroturfing reviewers know this already and are quite tricky…using 3 stars just to seem authentic. I don’t trust online reviews at all anymore and don’t look at them.
I have my own way of filtering amazon reviews.
I look at the dates of all the one star reviews especially the short one liners. The same with the positives to see if they were all written within the same few month time period. Fakes tend to bomb a product in a short period and only write a few words.
The wording of a review can a lot of the time give you a clue if it’s probably genuine. Too good or too negative for example.
Detailed reviews and long winded ones I tend to think of genuine.
Checking their previous reviews to other items is another clue. Are they all positive/negative for similar items except one brand. Is their a pattern etc.
I ignore Slow delivery or poorly packaged reviews as i don’t know which seller they chose to purchase from.
I ignore taste reviews as we are all different.
If the company offers money back guarantee or amazon would refund in a certain case why would they still write a review to complain that they threw it away or it was a waste of money etc etc.
The rest comes from Intuition and experience really.
Hope this helps a few people.
The terrible thing is that the war against alternative health/medicine really seems to be working. Even in FB groups, people quickly jump in to quote dubious Wikipedia articles that warn against such products. Wikipedia being a site that is biased against alternative health/medicine, as is Google and Pinterest. Facebook is rumoured to be corrupted in the same way, so various page owners are migrating to MeWe before they are simply taken down. Beware, Healthy Home Economist! Land of the free!
Sarah Pope MGA
There are so many paid trolls and bots online anymore, you really can’t believe much of what you see in the comments especially on social media. I try very hard to keep my social channels free of imposters, but I’m sure more than a few slip through!
Oh, you can (for the most part) tell fake reviews from real ones. For one, when it has too many 5 stars and everyone is giving it 5 stars.
Another is it just as a few words or even one word like that ubiqutious “great”.
The longer the review the more trustworthy it tends to be because it’s harder to lie that way and the liars are lazy and won’t go that far and long reviews also show compassion. of the product and how a person truly feels about it whether good or bad.or so so and you can get a real review of the product.
Of course, this doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get the truth but if you pay attention you can kind of tell.
i may be one of the last holdouts on the planet, but I refuse to get an Amazon Prime acct! Almost everything I want can be found at a direct company, either just as cheap or cheaper than Amazon. Plus, I would rather my money go to support small businesses than line Amazon’s CEO’s pockets!