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THE BROAD VIEW

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That five-star review of a product you just read might sound fantastic - and maybe that's exactly what it was - a fantasy. Welcome to the world of fake reviews.

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In October, for example, skincare company Sunday Riley was caught encouraging its employees to positively review its products on Sephora's website. Employees were reportedly sent a detailed e-mail explaining how to avoid getting caught.

PRODUCT reviews, in theory, are a very good idea. If you are buying a thing, why not consult the opinions of hundreds of people who have already bought and used that very thing? But product reviews, much like the comments section of news articles, are mostly a cesspool of poorly formed, strongly held opinions. To get the most out of reviews, you can't just rely on an aggregated star-ranking system. You actually have to read them.

As of this writing, more than 28,000 people on Amazon have reviewed the Instant Pot, the cult kitchen appliance that somehow slow-cooks stews and makes yogurt, though not at the same time. Nearly 18,000 people have used Amazon to review Fitbit's latest. Fenty's Pro Filt'r foundation has more than 11,000 reviews on Sephora's website.

The overwhelming majority of these reviews are relentlessly positive; these are four-star and higher products, per the rating system. But those reviewers who aren't extolling the virtues of their fancy kitchen gadget or their foundation are instead explaining why it's the very worst kitchen gadget or foundation to ever exist. In the world of online reviews, there is no middle ground; everything is either excellent or terrible, despite the fact that most things in this world are frankly just fine.

Instead of treating reviews as a sign that something is good or bad, the best or the absolute worst, as the one- to five-star system encourages us to do, we should instead treat reviews as what they are: guides to specific products' pros and cons, as described by real people. Nothing more, nothing less.

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The highs and lows of online reviews

Paul Pavlou, a professor of management information systems at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, said the prevalence of both five- and one-star reviews is the result of a phenomenon called "underreporting bias".

"We called it a J-shaped distribution in some of our earlier work, because there are more positive reviews than negative reviews," he said. There are even fewer reviews in the middle. "It's the extreme reviews - the ones and fives - that tend to be most common."

There are two reasons for this, according to his research. The first is that people rarely buy something they expect to hate, so shoppers tend to be "positively disposed" toward the things they buy. The second is that writing a review is harder than not writing a review. "It's extremely costly to write reviews, not in terms of monetary cost, but in terms of time and effort, so you only do it if you have something to say."

Even if most reviews are unhelpful, retailers are taking steps to show people the best reviews - the ones that will actually help them decide whether to buy a product, said Ted Lappas, an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology's School of Business.

Amazon, for example, highlights not only the "most helpful" good review but the "most helpful" bad review for most products. These are determined based on an algorithm that takes the review date into account, as well as feedback by other reviews (when you indicate that a review is helpful).

The most helpful good review for the Instant Pot, for instance, is hundreds of words long and provides explanations for some of the problems people have with it. The most helpful bad review says that despite the Instant Pot being a great product, the manufacturer doesn't honour the warranty. Sephora similarly lets shoppers sort reviews by "most helpful," which pushes most one-line reviews to the bottom.

These algorithms aren't just designed to weed out bad reviews - in some cases, they're also designed to weed out bad products.

Amazon, by far the largest e-commerce website, takes the number and quality of reviews into account when sorting products. If you search for "headphones," for example, you'll get more than 20,000 results, but most people don't bother to look past the first few pages. The products that get the coveted spots on those pages are a mix of sponsored products and those that have a high number of four- and five-star reviews.

The algorithm is designed to weed out bad products, but it can also bury new items from smaller companies, said Prof Lappas. Most people only read a handful of reviews before deciding what to buy, he said, and very few will look past the first five or 10 items they see.

Brands that lack the advantage of having highly reviewed products have a few options for bringing their products to the forefront. They could pay to promote their product, artificially placing it among its top-rated peers. (These types of ads have been increasingly lucrative for Amazon, which sold US$52.9 billion in ads in the second quarter of 2018 alone.) A cheaper - and perhaps more appealing - option is to fake it till they make it.

The shadowy world of fake reviews

The New York Times found plenty of examples of people offering fake reviews for sale on websites like Fiverr and Craigslist. "For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business," one Fiverr seller offered. "I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor," another person wrote on the advertising forum Digital Point. On Facebook, Amazon sellers offer money or free products in exchange for positive reviews, the Washington Post reported in April.

For a legitimate reviewer, there's very little payoff to taking time out of your day to write about a product; it requires a certain degree of emotional investment, as Prof Pavlou noted. But the act of writing a review isn't difficult in and of itself - especially if you're getting paid to do it.

This is why, according to Prof Lappas, it's so hard to spot fake reviews. "Think of a washing machine review. [One reviewer says] 'This washing machine sucks,' or 'I wouldn't recommend this product,'" he said. Whether those reviews are real or fake is "impossible to verify. There's not enough text for you to look at it and know if it's authentic or not".

He estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of online reviews are fake, though he said that the figure varies from platform to platform.

You may not see fake reviews when browsing for products, because algorithms tend to push "verified purchases" - those by people who actually bought the product - to the top, but fake reviews still affect the product's overall rating, meaning they affect whether you see the product in the first place. Even as websites get better at filtering out fakes, unscrupulous reviewers find new ways to game the system.

In October, for example, skincare company Sunday Riley was caught encouraging its employees to positively review its products on Sephora's website. Employees were reportedly sent a detailed e-mail explaining how to avoid getting caught; tips included reviewing other brands' products so as to not arouse suspicion and writing detailed reviews with lots of information.

"It helps to make yourself seem relatable - like you know how hard acne is and you've tried everything, and this one actually works," the e-mail said. "As reviews come in, read them too. If you notice someone saying things like I didn't like 'x' about it, write a review that says the opposite."

As Cheryl Wischhover wrote for Vox, Sunday Riley is by no means the only skincare company to flood the Sephora website with fake reviews.

"Sephora puts the pressure on brands - they really 'encourage' reviews," an anonymous beauty industry source told Wischhover at the time. "When you have a new launch, the sales will increase with a ton of good reviews. I do want to reiterate how common this practice for brands is. Sunday Riley just got caught. I'm not defending it, but it's a vicious circle."

There's also the fact that no matter how many positive reviews a product has, people will tend to remember the negative aspects of the few reviews they do read. In defence of its unethical reviewing practices, Sunday Riley claimed it was preempting negative reviews from competitors - behaviour that is said to be rampant in e-commerce, particularly in the beauty industry.

Writing product reviews is, in theory, a generous, selfless thing to do. In an ideal world, the reviewer gains absolutely nothing, aside from the satisfaction of helping a bunch of strangers on the Internet make an informed decision. But the world we live in is far from ideal, so it makes perfect sense that the otherwise selfless system of product reviews has been co-opted by hucksters, frauds, and people who will lie to strangers in exchange for a US$5 deposit into their PayPal account. VOX