You Just Can't Trust Reviews Anymore
Believe it or not, humans have been providing reviews for thousands of years. It all started in prehistoric times when a middle-aged caveman named Oongah gave a young cavewoman named Phora a positive review after attending a small gathering and tasting her burned boar ribs.
“Phora cook yummy,” he told all his friends.
His review was passed around through word of mouth: “Oongah say Phora cook yummy.”
But word of mouth can be unreliable, and Phora’s father gave Oongah a swollen lip when the review made its way back to him: “Oongah say Phora look yummy.”
Such word-of-mouth reviews existed for many centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they appeared frequently in print. Newspapers and magazines hired reviewers to give readers their expert opinions on movies, plays, albums, books and restaurants. Some of these reviewers were so influential that a positive review from them could propel a book up the bestseller charts and a negative review could propel the author into public relations.
Expert reviews worked well, but the experts couldn’t review everything. A restaurant reviewer could visit the new upscale restaurant in Bangkok serving crispy fried gizzards, but who would take the trouble to review the roadside diner serving crispy fried lizards? A book reviewer could give five stars to the latest thriller from Stephen King, but who would review the latest griller from George Foreman?
The internet eventually filled the void, of course. It allowed consumers to leave ratings and reviews on various sites such as Google, Amazon, Yelp and many others. Before long, almost every product and service was subject to ratings and reviews. Consumers couldn’t avoid checking them out. If you were thinking of buying a particular snow blower, you’d be pleased to read a review that said, “Perfect blowing from this snow blower.” But you’d be hesitant to make a purchase if you read a review that said, “This snow blower really blows.”
If you owned a motel and your average rating was between one and two stars, you might have trouble attracting guests.
Motel owner: “Oh no, our last customer left us a positive and negative review.”
Twenty-year-old son: “How can it be both positive and negative?”
Owner: “Well, here’s the review: ‘Everyone at the motel is very friendly. Even the cockroaches are friendly.’”
Son: “That’s not good.”
Owner: “Our ratings are in the toilet. Do you think you can get your new girlfriend to give us a positive review?”
Son: “But dad, she has never stayed at our motel.”
Owner: “Just tell her to write some nice words about you. Something like this: smells great, very clean and attractive, you won’t regret an overnight stay.”
As businesses received negative reviews, they realized that they could offset these reviews – even bury them completely – by generating positive reviews from people who had not used their product or service. They could even buy these fake reviews from marketers.
Fake reviews have become so rampant that even doctors are using them. As The New York Times reported recently, an orthopedic doctor named Mark J. Mohrmann had to pay a $100,000 penalty in a settlement with New York’s attorney general for using fake reviews.
Fake Review Watch, an industry watchdog, found that 23 people who claimed to be Mohrmann’s patients in Yelp reviews had quite coincidentally left reviews for the same limo company in Florida. The Transparency Company, another industry watchdog, found that many of Mohrmann’s reviews on Google Maps were from accounts connected to India, Vietnam and Britain -- and not because the doctor specializes in telemedicine.
The New York attorney general’s office told the Times that Mohrmann had even “asked friends, family and employees to leave positive, five-star reviews” and that his wife had left some of the reviews.
I’m not sure what his wife wrote, but perhaps it was something like this: “I’ve been extremely satisfied with Dr. Mohrmann. He has a special touch and always gives me the best treatment. Dr. Mohrmann can work on my body anytime.”