Fake reviews point up dangers of relying on social media data

There has been a lot of emphasis in the marketing research industry recently about mining social media and other Web sites and combining the data with text analytics in order to get a true understanding of consumers’ views. Many in the industry are selling this as more accurate and less biased than traditional qualitative and quantitative methods. But I have to admit I’m a bit of a skeptic. I’ve always felt these new tools can supplement traditional research but not replace it because the sample is so biased and I simply don’t trust many of the comments I read in online product or service reviews posted by other consumers. To me, the real value of these new techniques is to help researchers add shape and color to data gleaned from their more traditional research approaches.

I was not surprised to learn earlier this year that Yelp! has had a problem with fake reviews and that TripAdvisor is under investigation in the U.K. for fake reviews.  Apparently the problem with TripAdvisior is so rampant that many feel the site itself (which is designed to be a review site) is worthless.  As more and more companies practice social media marketing strategies, the problem is likely to get worse. And it isn’t just positive reviews that are fake, but competitors have been known to post negative reviews as well.

So what’s a researcher to do?

Luckily there seem to be some new tools coming to the rescue. Researchers at Cornell University have developed a software that is designed to find fraudulent reviews (humans are not very good at this because we suffer from a truth bias). In an initial test the software analyzed 800 Chicago hotel reviews and was able to pick out the fake reviews 90 percent of the time. (Apparently fake reviews use more verbs than legitimate ones.) Until review sites start to use this type of software to screen their consumer-generated reviews it might make sense to be cautious. You don’t want to stake your reputation as a researcher on false data.

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4 Responses to Fake reviews point up dangers of relying on social media data

  1. Thanks so much for this info. I’m a focus group moderator but I also provide training and coaching to small businesses that want to start using social media. This article is well timed for me. Last week, a client who is a restaurant owner complained to me that a recommendation site was filed with remarks about his restaurant. Most of the remarks or recommendations related to meals he doesn’t serve (ie I really enjoyed my steak. His restaurant serves vegetarian food only). I will be sure to have him see your article. It will perhaps give him hope! This is hard situation for him to manage.

  2. If it is true that outfits like TripAdvisor can initiate co-ordinated strategies to manipulate reviews and comments, I don’t see why companies willing to do so could not learn what separates real reviews from fake ones (e.g. the use of verbs) and build reviews based on that knowledge. Ultimately the quality of any review depends on the ethical foundation of a company and its willingness to fact-check. As the article suggests, caution is the word.

  3. Dan Quirk says:

    I’m don’t think TripAdvisor and Yelp! were promoting the false reviews — that was done by the hotels themselves. But, TripAdvisor and Yelp! seem to have neglected to put in place enough safeguards to protect against this.

    I know that within the marketing research realm I receive lots of e-mails from research companies asking me to rate and give positive reviews to research companies and focus group facilities in response to some industry surveys — and I don’t even use their services. Research companies will admit these surveys are majorly flawed, but if they score well they don’t hesitate to promote the results –even though they know it is bogus. If the research industry does not demand better, how can we expect better from other industries.

    It seems to me that the pursuit of getting “Liked” has trumped basic business ethics.

  4. Dan:

    1. Thanks for pulling the curtain back. I’m on board with your viewpoint of the dangers of fake consumer reviews, and worse, competitive negative reviews. (I’m shocked, shocked that someone would falsify consumer reviews in this establishment!) Hopefully, when the Recession lifts, the competitive mud-slinging using fake reviews with abate with it. Anyone remember Taking the High Road and just being better than your competition?

    2. Sadly, a few industries (Hospitality, Auto, Pharmaceutical) seem to be distracted from core strategies in favor of “mining” Fool’s Gold found via social media (Friend Us!). Maybe they are padding their resumes with social media experience for the next gig. Anything to pull attention away from flagging unit growth.

    3. Attention CMO’s…a lot of young people are buried in student debt and busy texting each other from their parent’s attics! The people seeking better brand experiences and can afford them are actually Over 40. Hire those Over 40 as well, and we’ll show you how to speak to them and grow your brands.