Bad Apples Get Loud in the Crowd

What a shame. The wisdom of crowds is a good idea. User reviews is another good idea. You click and then read. There’s the reassurance found in good reviews. How many times have you been influenced by reviewers’ stars for one product or another. And lately also for services (as in Google maps, linked to reviews for services like TV installation and plumbing).  It’s nice, except for the bad apples in the crowd. Sour grapes. Sweet lemons.

Sour Grapes

If you use reviews at all, you recognize them. Using the review site for revenge. “You’ll be sorry you treated me badly.” The lurking competitors are bad; the extortionists are bad. Most of them inadvertently make it too obvious, but the worst of them do it too well. They pollute the review sites.

  • One of my favorites was the local restaurant review that was all thumbs down. Then the reviewer shares that they refused to serve her because they said she was drunk and unruly. Hmmm … do we see two sides to that story?
  • The gas dryer review spews venom about the product. Read closer: it was written the day the installer failed to show up. As in, before using the product.
  • The bad auto review hates the dealer; not the car.
  • QuickBooks (bookkeeping software) reviews are a good example. A lot of hatred there, far more than the software deserves. Everybody hates the accounting software they use, regardless of the brand. And no, I don’t work for Intuit, and no, they don’t pay me to say that. It’s just a good example.
  • The worst of it: reviews by competitors. To stick with the QuickBooks example, people reviewing QuickBooks who are really plugging their own competing software. People reviewing one book to plug their own. People reviewing restaurants who own or work for competing restaurants.

Just in case it isn’t obvious, think about this one: people who threaten other people with bad reviews. If you don’t add that other service for free, I’m going to trash you on the web. It happens, believe me. The extortionists.

Sweet Lemons

You can usually spot them: reviews on review sites by employees, consultants, marketers of the product. For me, when there’s only one or two reviews on a site, I’m suspicious.

Can’t Touch That

Review sites can’t deal with these bad apples. Earlier this week the New York Times published this piece about Yelp. Vendors want due process, error checking, protection against competitors and such. I’ve seen that before, about Well, to be honest, my company has been victimized by competitors and extortionists on

Legally, practically, the review sites don’t dare touch even the most obviously spurious and malicious reviews. It’s one of those legal areas that are either black or white, with no in between: as soon as you change a single review, then you’re editing, and you become responsible for all of them. If you never touch a review, as a hosting site, then you’re not responsible for any review’s content. I’m not an attorney, so check me on this, but that’s the way it was explained to me by somebody who should know.

So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and in the meantime, those of us who would like to draw on the wisdom of crowds have to go with so much caution that it’s rarely worth it. These days I only look at reviews when there are a bunch of them, 25, 50 or more, so that the bad apples don’t distort the broad picture.

But Could They, Should They, In the Future?

I was about to write “there ought to  be a law.” However, on reflection, never mind. Bad idea. But is it perhaps too much to hope for a court case or ruling that eases up on the legal liability for weeding out some of the most obviously erroneous or self-serving reviews?

Maybe at least an honor code and ethics attempt, asking people to at least identify themselves confidentially to the hosting site, so they take responsibility somewhere. It’s not a big identity theft or spammer email problem to do that; most blogs do it routinely.

It’s Not Necessarily Free Speech

Free speech is about politics, not printer drivers or restaurants. And we’re not talking about government entities limiting speech, we’re talking about review sites taking out the trash. I wish that the whole free speech thing weren’t such a slippery slope.

However, the courts do say that free speech doesn’t include shouting fire in a crowded theater (dangerous) or distributing commercial leaflets in a crowded theater (commerce). So maybe there’s hope for review sites getting a little tiny bit of slack on this, some time in the future.

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  • Serves’m Right Award: Big Fine for Fake Reviews says:

    […] I like using reviews on the Web (I’ve posted about reviews and review pollution here in Bad Apples last Spring and Reading Consumer Reviews last year), but they are easy to fake and abuse. In an […]

  • Wayne Liew says:

    What is being highlighted in this article is very true. There are indeed someone out there like our competitors who are trying to make us look bad while some businesses may ask someone from within the organization to leave a positive review. In my opinion, these issues don't usually matter if a products receive tons of genuine reviews from customers. The power of the community, in the end, will triumph. I think the allocation of the title "Power Reviewer" helps as well.

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