Reviews By Online Shoppers Spark Cynicism

As e-commerce proliferates, so too do user reviews on shopping sites. But whether those reviews are trustworthy is another matter.

Last week, accusations of fakery flew across the blogosphere when Thomas Hawk, a pseudonymous tech blogger, posted about alleged abusive behavior by a representative of an online camera store--PriceRitePhoto.com--that was highly rated on both PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping.

"One of the things that troubles me the most about this situation is that I found this retailer through Yahoo! Shopping and they were perceived to have positive feedback," the blogger wrote last week. "Is the feedback mechanism for Yahoo! Shopping broken? How could this horrible retailer have a four star rating with 858 ratings? I'm convinced that there is a possibility that many of the 'reviews' for this company could be fake."

Both Yahoo! Shopping and PriceGrabber.com had scores of negative reviews for the store that mirrored the blogger's own, but on both sites, PriceRitePhoto.com managed to maintain a rating of at least four out of five stars, in part thanks to hundreds of positive reviews, ranking the seller at five out of five stars.

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PriceGrabber.com's Business Director of Technology and Entertainment, Sean Kane, told OnlineMediaDaily that all of PriceRitePhoto.com's reviews had been vetted, and that the company stood behind their authenticity. Yahoo! Shopping was not available for comment on their review system, but since the blogger's story drew attention in the media, Yahoo! has de-listed the merchant and deleted all their consumer reviews.

Kane said that user reviews posted to PriceGrabber.com are screened via a human editorial process, and also an automated algorithm. "We have very, very low tolerance for game-playing," he said. "If we find out that there's game-playing going on with the reviews, we delete the reviews and suspend the merchant. If it happens again, we terminate the merchant."

According to Kane, shilled reviews are the bane of a site like PriceGrabber.com, because they destroy consumer confidence. "We want to be the most trusted resource. If our integrity is compromised, our users can't have a clean experience," he said.

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of buzz-monitoring firm Intelliseek, said that review gaming, or the perception thereof, is a threat to the entire consumer review model. "Trust is currency, and if trust is compromised by shills, the value of the comment, review, or rating plummets. Everyone loses," he said.

On the other hand, companies are naturally concerned with their review numbers, and that's a good thing for the consumer--to a point. "You want companies to be self-conscious about their grades. Importantly, you want them to do what's necessary to increase the odds of positive yet non-incented reviews and feedback," he said. "Short of manipulation, of course."

But companies that try to turn their rankings around with shill reviews face a serious danger of discovery in today's connected world, Blackshaw said. "Shilling or seeding on message boards risks exposing your dirty laundry on search results for eternity," he said. "Complaints are near-impossible to erase on the Web."

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