User reviews can offer valuable insight into a product's real value after the sale. But many review sites also contain write-ups by fanboys, axe-grinders, and even a few shills. How do you know which reviews to trust?
Avoid the shills
"The one thing you can't trust about reviews at online retailers is you can't know if someone is just trying to move more units," says Chamberlain.
Most user reviews on most websites are probably authentic, but fake reviews do exist - and given the level of anonymity that the internet permits, posting a phony review could hardly be easier.
Unscrupulous bloggers might receive money, free products, or simply a boost in status for praising a company or product.
Tech user Joe Smith could easily be a PR flack, or a stay-at-home parent earning some extra dosh as a reviewer-for-hire, or a desperate marketing manager determined to improve sales.
There's enough opportunity for misbehaviour, in fact, that an informal marketplace has sprung up in recent years.
'Reputation management' firms might offer to burnish a manufacturer's image with a little strategic fine-tuning of user review pages.
Last August, the website MobileCrunch posted internal sales communication from a game publisher PR firm called Reverb Communications, in which the firm promises to frontload new releases on the Apple App Store with reviews provided by "in-house writers" and "written from the angle of each [target] age group including key words that resonate with each audience".
Shills have been discovered in a variety of retail channels. In January of 2009, blogger Arlen Parsa reported that he'd found job listings for fake reviewers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk; they turned out to have been placed by a business development rep at Belkin who was trying to improve the Amazon rating for a router.
That same month, blogger Bruce Goldsteinberg reported that he'd discovered Carbonite employees pretending to be customers on the company's Amazon pages as far back as 2006.
The ongoing attempts at gaming user reviews has led to inevitable crack-downs, too.
Last July, the New York Attorney General fined cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift $300,000 for fabricating online reviews.
(One internal email told employees to "devote the day to doing more postings on the web [posing] as a satisfied client".)
That same month, the travel review website TripAdvisor, which is owned by Expedia, was briefly in the news after reports that customers had found nearly 100 warnings posted throughout the site by the company, saying that specific property reviews were untrustworthy.
By the end of 2009, the FTC had revised and re-issued guidelines instructing all bloggers to disclose any relevant business relationships to their readers, in part to combat fake personas created to provide testimonials for health drinks and diet products.
NEXT PAGE: How to spot a shill