A Five Star Failure

Certain things are entirely predictable. One of them is that some people will eventually test the boundaries of any system (and sometimes blatantly cheat) in order to gain an advantage.

Online ratings—which are based on the idea that peers are a pretty good judge of the quality of a pizza, hotel or flat-screen TV—have devolved into a steaming cauldron of deceit. Gartner predicts that 10 to 15 percent of all online reviews will be fraudulent by 2014.

Apparently, things have tipped so far toward cheating that New York regulators are now cracking down on deceptive reviews on the Internet, The New York Times reports. The state’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, recently reached an agreement with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in fines.

The reviews in question—apparently originating from Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe—showed up at popular sites such as Goggle, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo! The reviewers, who were paid as little as $1 per review, either praised or took aim at shops, professionals and others they knew nothing about.

I’ve blogged about online reviews previously. Although I occasionally rely on comments to guide a buying decision, I find them mostly irrelevant and often confusing. One person rates an app with five stars and another sticks it with a single star. One person waxes poetic about a hotel and another makes it sound like a plywood shack minus a hookup to the grid. Cheating feeds the whiplash.

Nevertheless, online reviews are here to stay. In some fields, including IT, executives often base buying decisions on comments from their peers or online reviews. Only a few sites, usually in the professional sphere, have gone so far as to introduce user validation, community policing and other methods to combat fraud and increase the odds of generating authentic reviews from qualified people.

There’s no question that experiences and perceptions vary—sometimes greatly. And, though a growing number of sites, including Google and TripAdvisor, have introduced algorithms to detect fraud and alert consumers, it’s obviously not enough to thwart fake reviews.

It’s great that New York state is getting serious about the issue. Let’s hope others follow their example. A lack of trust hurts everyone.