Who wrote that review?

Via Andrew Shotland, I recently saw this post.  I know I’ll be called naive, but I was surprised at its blatancy.

This guy Stephen Espinosa (whom I don’t know) helps local businesses promote themselves online.  His advice is to get your “clients” to post reviews on popular sites — the quote marks are his, and he adds a smiley face in case we don’t get it:

I won’t spell it out fully, since he doesn’t, but this seems like an opportune moment to talk about fake reviews.

You need spend only a few minutes on most rate-and-review sites to understand that they contain fake reviews.  There are fake positive reviews posted by the business owners, and fake negative reviews posted by their competitors.  Many are amateurish and easy to identify if you’re looking for them, though I suspect that some casual users don’t realize they’re fake.

I’ve never put much store in reviews by strangers.  Still, I always thought that out-and-out fakes were a fairly limited and unorganized phenomenon.  Now that I see they might be promoted more systematically, I’ve lost confidence that I can even spot a fake.

Furthermore, I expect that such fakery will spread and become more sophisticated.  As local search reaches critical mass, it’ll be hard to trust anything.

I used to believe, for instance, that a Yelp reviewer with 10+ reviews and some kudos from friends was almost certainly a real person.  That’s probably still a safe assumption — but will it be next year?

If I’m a certain type of SEO consultant, right now I’m probably setting up a network of hundreds of fake Yelpers.  They’ll all have real-looking pictures, real-sounding profiles, and lots of reviews (some even genuine).  They’ll send each other kudos, enhancing each others’ credibility. 

And they’ll exist solely so I can be paid to deploy them for the benefit of my clients.

If done properly, this sort of fakery will be very hard to detect.  Probably the only way I’d get caught would be to advertise the service — or to include quote marks and smiley faces when I blogged about it.

And this is just the truly fake reviews.  There’s still reviews from friends of the business owner, and “real” reviews that have been solicited directly by business owners, some of whom will give discounts in exchange for posting on … well, on a certain site.

In such a world, reviews by strangers become devalued and personal trust is at a premium.

Not so long ago I heard that we need to see, on average, 20 reviews from strangers before we’ll believe the prevalent opinion that’s being expressed.

What will that number be in the future?  50?  100?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and better to get your advice from people you know and trust? 

Via, say, Loladex?


  1. You are completely right about when can we trust reviews and when cant we trust reviews. You would be amazed if you saw me speak at SES NY when I posed the simple question, “how many have not written a review for their own business?”, and nobody raised their hand.

    Loladex is great idea, and the post was just written towards my audience. But as far as me myself writing fake reviews, I have not, as I have to many PM friends @ Y! and G Local who would burn me @ the stake if I did.

    Nice Post.

  2. I think that no-one would disagree with your points made, though on a quantitative size, I just don’t have enough friends to have every restaurant in San Fransisco reviewed. Yelp does have so many users. How do you want to solve that? I could guess you can sort the real users from the fake ones by checking how fast their network is scaling up (in friends of friends way) those with a low number (or always the same 100 friends) would be seen as less trust worthy, whilst someone who is a friend of my friends can be seen as pretty trust worthy

  3. Hi Sjors —

    It’s definitely true that having millions of users, a la Yelp, has many more advantages than disadvantages. My feeling is that future sites will tap into *both* types of information wherever available — information from trusted friends will always get top billing, but it’ll be supplemented and backstopped by information from “strangers” whose trustworthiness, ideally, can be evaluated by a variety of means.

    When Yelp adds Facebook Connect, in other words, I think they’ll create a lot of value.

    Meanwhile, the idea of using algorithms to measure trustworthiness is interesting. Could it ever be good enough? Hard to say.

    BTW, at least one app already uses “friend of a friend” status as a good-enough approximation of trustworthiness, and I’m inclined to agree that the approach is viable. How about “friend of a friend of a friend,” or third-degree connections? I’m dubious that such a tenuous connection is worthy of trust, but the numbers are mighty tempting.

    For instance, I have roughly the same number of friends on Facebook and LinkedIn — a bit more than 200. If the social dynamics are comparable across both sites, I probably have more than 2 million third-level “friends” on Facebook. Are they reviewing restaurants in San Francisco? Of course — though perhaps not yet on Loladex.

    There’s an answer in there somewhere …

    – Laurence

  4. yeah..complete mid work..when to trust the review and when to not..! fake reviews waste time.! :-(