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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

December 14, 2012 at 1:20 PM

In online reviews, fake raves feed mistrust

Brave woman enters restaurant without first looking it up online,” went the headline on popular parody news site theonion.com.

“Well, I haven’t pored over the menu on the restaurant’s website, read the first 20 Yelp ratings, or scanned any online reviews from blogs or newspapers, but here we go,” the article’s fictional character tells herself in the story. “Christ, I haven’t even seen a single picture of the food before on someone’s Tumblr page. I’m flying totally blind here.”

I laughed. Urbanspoon, a restaurant ratings app based here in Seattle, is on permanent standby on my smartphone. I know exactly what the article is talking about.

Last week I wrote my column on what businesses do to get people to follow them on sites like Facebook or Twitter. It’s a grab bag of discounts, offers, contests and the like, all in good fun and great for the bottom line.

But when businesses offer incentives in exchange for what become biased, fake online reviews, or flat-out cheat to skew their ratings, it threatens one of the most helpful products of the collaborative Web — the collection and organization of authentic public opinion.

Too many people don’t realize it’s happening or know that it’s wrong. Review sites and their most loyal users have taken up the fight. The rest of us should be right there with them.

It’s hard to say how widespread review fraud is, but it’s easy to understand why it exists. Good reviews drive business. Lots of it. A 2011 working paper by Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca suggested that just one more star in the Yelp rating of independent restaurants leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.

It’s not just what we eat. My husband and I decided which hotel to stay at in Puerto Rico with the help of reviews on TripAdvisor. And how many times have you glanced at public product ratings while ordering Christmas gifts?

These sites have amassed wonderful, helpful information because they’ve made it easy for people to contribute. But that’s a blessing and a curse. When you make it that easy to post, you make it that easy to game.

Opinions drive our decisions. If the reviews can’t be trusted, that all falls apart.

Review sites know this. In October, Yelp outed a handful of businesses it caught trying to hire “elite” Yelp reviewers — veteran reviewers with strong reputations — to write glowing reviews for them on the site. Many offers were posted on Craigslist, promising easy money.

On a scan of Seattle Craigslist last week, I found not one but three mysterious posts offering to help local businesses get better Yelp reviews. “Our reviews are guaranteed to stick,” read one of the listings.

Last week, Urbanspoon became the latest site to join forces with a team of Cornell researchers to make sure that’s not the case. Equipped with these sites’ data, the researchers are developing text analysis models to better detect fraud.

Like many sites, Urbanspoon invests heavily on a mix of filters, community policing and case-by-case evaluations to curb the problem. If a business had no activity on its rating for months, but suddenly got 25 rating votes in just a couple hours, for example, it’s flagged for review. If it was the result of legitimate interest, it’s not a problem. But if the business was trying to stuff the ballot box or offer incentives for votes, the ratings don’t stand.

There will always be fraud, Urbanspoon general manager Kara Nortman said. It’s a reality of the Internet. Urbanspoon feels it has matters under control. But do we?

A few months ago I was personally asked by someone representing a local company to buy a product, use it and then post a review of it on Amazon.com, at which point I’d get compensated for the price of the product and get paid for my time.

I was stunned. It was such a casual request. Just another writing gig. I turned it down, politely, but wish I had been more candid. These practices hurt us.

If you see a business trying to taint authentic opinion with fraud, call it out. We need to be vigilant. We need to guard what we’ve built.

Or else this really will become parody.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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