I first heard the phrase caveat emptor (Latin for “Let the buyer beware”) in a business class at Oregon State University many moons ago. For me, that principle was brought to life during my first excursion to purchase a used car.
I remember my salesman, with anxiety written all over his face, trudging back to his sales manager to see if there was any way possible that he could get an approval on the miserly offer that I had just extended. Of course, he wasn’t really talking to his sales manager when he walked away. He was trying to create the perception that I was beating him up on the sale price.
I just wanted to buy a decent car – not buy a lemon, polished up to look like a million bucks. And to accomplish that, I needed to haggle (or at least pretend to haggle) over a fair price. Buying a car was like a contest. The process was, and in many cases still is, a test of your negotiating skills and your moxie. A lot of people hated it. I actually loved it. I expected the salesman to try to take advantage of me, and my attitude was “give it your best shot.”
Fast forward to our enlightened, Internet age. Today product and pricing information is easily accessible online, and with consumer protections in place, much of the negotiating dance has disappeared. However, don’t get the idea that you can let your guard down – because the smarmy car sales guy has been replaced by the fake product review.
During the Christmas shopping season, I stumbled across what looked to be a pretty cool device. It was a zoom lens that quickly attaches to your smartphone. Great idea, right? The product description bragged that I would get great-looking photos with this 16x zoom lens, and that it would replace my 35mm camera with other expensive lenses. I could buy it for about fifty bucks. So, I started reading the reviews.
The first reviews were very positive, 5-star entries. They were brief, benefit-oriented quotes like “easy to use,” “amazing photos,” and “terrific gift.” The overall rating on the item was roughly three out of five stars, so I kept reading…and came across longer, more specific reviews… the kind I would write if I actually took the time to review a product online. And then I found what I was looking for.
“I don’t know what product some of these reviewers got, but it wasn’t the piece of sh#!% that was shipped to me. I tried for half an hour to take a clear photo. At first I thought I had to be doing something wrong. This is junk. DO NOT buy.” Many similar reviews followed.
Of course misleading reviews aren’t just limited to products. They infiltrate almost every good and service being promoted online. And they aren’t just limited to deceitfully positive reviews posted by friends, employees, and PR firms that have a vested interest in selling lots of merchandise. Some reviews are scorching, and they come from people with an axe to grind with the manufacturer or proprietor.
But if you want conclusive evidence for why you should never, EVER believe anything you ever read on the Internet again, I present Oobah Butler. Butler is a feature writer for the website Vice (vice.com). After having been paid to write fake reviews by an unethical public relations service, Butler decided to undertake a social experiment: to see if he could make a non-existent restaurant in London the #1 rated eatery on TripAdvisor.com.
Butler created a phony website for The Shed at Dulwich, the imaginary restaurant set in the backyard of his small cottage. He set up a TripAdvisor account with a disposable phone, described the restaurant as “by appointment only,” and did not provide a street address. He then engaged a group of friends to post fake reviews on the TripAdvisor site from different computers/devices to avoid being caught by TripAdvisor’s fraud detection capabilities.
Incredibly, The Shed at Dulwich steadily climbed up the TripAdvisor rankings. Callers were told that the restaurant was booked for weeks in advance. Food suppliers began guessing the restaurant’s address and sending free samples, and job seekers sent resumes. Butler did media interviews with the numerous publications and websites and even appeared in the London Times. He managed to become the #1 London eatery on TripAdvisor, and he did it without ever serving a single meal.
Check out the video of Butler’s story here on Vice. It is mind-blowing and hilarious.
And will permanently change your perspective of online reviews.