5 ways to avoid being misled by review sites


A man you don't know approaches you on the street and tells you why you should or shouldn't eat at a particular restaurant, stay at a particular hotel, or shop at a particular store. Do you take the stranger's word for it?

Most likely, you'd probably be skeptical of the stranger's advice. So why do we trust user-generated review sites that are penned by strangers? Citysearch, Zagat, TripAdvisor and Yelp offer millions of reviews for every business imaginable, and what strangers write on these sites has the power to influence whether or not you decide to visit a venue.

Review sites can be useful, but they can also be deceptive. Here are five ways you can avoid being misled by these sites:

1. Don't get fooled by fake reviews

Anyone can create an account on a review site and give a business a positive or negative review, without actually having visited the place. Because of this, it can often be difficult to tell the fake reviews apart from the real ones. Fake reviews have become such a widespread and persistent phenomenon that The New York Times has investigated the problem three times in the past two years (twice by reporter David Streitfeld here and here, and once by David Segal in his "Haggler" column).

In the summer of 2011, a team of researchers from Cornell did a study where they hired freelance writers to produce 400 positive, but fake reviews of hotels in Chicago. The researchers mixed in an additional 400 reviews from TripAdvisor that they believed to be real, and asked a panel of judges to see if they could tell the fake reviews apart from the real ones. The result? The judges were unable to distinguish the real reviews from the fakes.

Why would anyone take the time to write a fake review? Simple: Businesses that receive poor reviews from customers have an incentive to game the system to make themselves look better. There are several posts on online forums like Digital Point where people offer money in exchange for writing positive reviews for various businesses.

"I just can't trust any 'user' reviews," a commenter named Dawny Chambers wrote in a 2010 article about Yelp in the Washington Post. "The anonymity of the Internet undermines all of these sorts of sites."