Crowdsourcing reviews – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Crowd sourcing of reviews is becoming problematic as more people flock to the web for real information.  Although not a new problem, the amount of deliberate misinformation continues to grow, creating problems for consumers and businesses alike.

TripAdvisor, the popular travel review site, uses crowd sourcing to generate their reviews.  As the term “crowd sourcing” implies, these travel reviews are generated by a crowd of anonymous strangers, and not always with good intentions.

Up to 20% of reviews are fake

The Telegraph recently reported in an article that:

Tripadvisor carries more than 50 millions reviews which it claims are honest, reliable and written by “real travelers around the world”.

However, the online reputation company KwikChex.com has questioned the legitimacy of those claims. It believes that up to 10 million reviews are faked, and alleges that Tripadvisor does not do enough to authenticate its reviews or remove fraudulent posts.

As many as 10 million out of 50 million reviews are faked – that’s one in every five reviews (20%) that are fraudulent.  This creates a real challenge for both consumers and businesses.

In response to investigations by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) to protect consumers, TripAdvisor has changed their slogan from “Reviews you can trust” to the slogan, “Reviews from our community”, and makes fewer claims about veracity.  Similarly, Yelp – another review site that uses crowd sourcing – also has a slogan that makes no claims of veracity, “Real people.  Real reviews.”

Finding the truth takes work and time

Of course, it is still possible to get valuable guidance from TripAdvisor and Yelp.  But that value doesn’t come easily – you need to do your homework and carefully read all the reviews to find patterns of truth and figure out which reviews are suspicious.  Even TripAdvisor co-founder Steve Kaufer acknowledges this in his conversation with the Telegraph, responding to the 2012 ASA ruling against TripAdvisor:

Instead of reading one review, you can read hundreds. You can see photos taken by real visitors, you can read responses provided by the hotel, and you can take a look at the profiles of reviewers. Our visitors use their own common sense to make informed decisions about whether a property is right for them.

Blackmail and extortion

Consumers are not the only ones who can be adversely affected by crowd sourcing reviews.  Crowd sourced reviews are difficult for businesses, too.  Some consumers use review sites as a means to blackmail a business by threatening to write negative reviews if they do not get what they want.

And like TripAdvisor, Yelp has gotten into legal hot water with businesses claiming extortion.

Businesses can feel they are being extorted by both the review site and their customers, when customers use the review sites to blackmail a business to obtain discounts or additional services.  And when there are negative reviews, the review sites might be able to make those negative reviews go away if the business advertises.

Wisdom of Crowds

The above might lead you to believe that crowd sourcing is evil, but in fact, crowd sourcing can be very good.

Keep in mind that even if 20% of reviews are fake, the other 80% are legitimate.  When a business has hundreds of reviews, the legitimate reviews will eventually overwhelm the fake reviews.  This is known as the “wisdom of crowds” – if  a large number of people think a business is good or bad, it probably is.

You might not be able to rely on individual reviews for an accurate picture of a business, but you can probably rely on the average rating of a business if there are hundreds or even thousands of reviews.

Friend sourcing with Real Word of Mouth

Real Word of Mouth provides an alternative to crowd sourcing, avoiding the problems described above.  Instead, Real Word of Mouth relies on “friend sourcing” – recommendations from people you know.  There is no anonymity, no fake reviews, and when reviews are shared privately, there’s less leverage and motivation to manipulate the business.

When you know the person making the recommendation, you get more than just a recommendation.  You get context.  You know their values, tastes, and areas of expertise. And if the person knows you well, they can also make appropriate recommendations for you because they know what matters to you. A recommendation from someone you know might be better than hundreds of reviews from strangers.