Online User Reviews: Can They Be Trusted?

Beware of illogical positivism: If a review is excessively positive (especially compared to others) and has contains only one very minor quibble--usually at the end--for balance, there is a strong possibilty that it's bogus. "You can usually tell a shill by their complete lack of balance and fact, and unusual enthusiasm for something very minor," says Nick Merritt, Editor in Chief of the UK-based TechRadar.

Consider the source: For example, on Dell's site, customers give the Dell Vostro 1310 notebook 4.1 stars out of 5. But on CNet, readers give it 3 out of 5. Says Barbara Kasser bluntly, "Don't look at reviews on a vendor's site--there's a good chance they're planted."

Weigh the balance: Look for reviews that provide both positive and negative feedback and include salient details, says one longtime professional tech reviewer. "That way you know the reviewer has actually seen and used the product."

Check for consensus: Check multiple sites to see whether there's any consensus. "You've got to look at four different sources at least," says computer curmudgeon Steve Bass. "That'll give you a broader sense of how good or bad the product is." Adds online business author Frank Fiore, "I like sites, like Amazon, that give you an aggregate score and show a history of the reviewer. That way you can get a handle on whether they're plants or have a personal agenda."

Check to see who's talking: Look for sites that identify reviewers in some fashion. "I take only 'real name' reviews on Amazon seriously" says Kasser. McConnell likes how eBay requires users to disclose a lot of verifiable information, from full physical address to e-mail to phone number. Many review sites barely ask for your e-mail address.

Caveats aside, reader reviews have their place. Even WebWatch's Brendler admits that an expert review isn't always enough. "The passionate reader review can be a plus...it can tell you how the leather seats in that car feel."

Better yet, says Brendler, reader reviews encourage "frank, open dialogue between consumers and companies." To keep that dialogue open, he says, it's in a company's best interest not to plant phony reviews.

Robert Luhn is the former editor in chief of Computer Currents magazine.

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