Like a lot of consumers these days, I like to read the online reviews before making a big purchase. But I've also learned over the years to heed the professional reviewers more than consumers — although it's always a bonus if the two things agree.
There are a few reasons I tend to trust the pros more than Joe Public when it comes to these things. For one, a serious reviewer is experienced and generally fair, and if they have a bias — and all of them do — then it's usually well known and you can generally account for that. Like journalists, pro reviewers work "on the record" and they have to stand by that if they want to maintain their credibility.
The other reason is that you can't necessarily trust Joe Public. There was one funny review going around the interwebs recently where someone praised a product on Amazon.com, going as far as to say that it saved her child's life — before giving it just four out of five stars. What, people wondered, would the product have to do to get a perfect rating?
On one side of the spectrum you have the grumpy reviewers, those pessimistic perfectionists that are eternally disappointed and seem to go out of their way to find the bad in everything. I've met people for whom every single trip to a restaurant is a veritable horror story of inept staff, poor quality food and long waits to be seated or for food. Maybe they just didn't like the look they got when they asked to have half the salad dressing on the salad and half on the side.
On the other side of the spectrum you have the straight-up fake reviewers, usually people who work at the business or are related in some way to the people there, but sometimes of the paid variety as well. According to MarketWatch, something like 20 per cent of Yelp reviews are fraudulent, and produced by freelancers overseas that have never actually been to the restaurant or store, and yet are paid $1 to $10 per review. New York's attorney general actually had to step in due to the growing number of fake reviews — as you can imagine, that city's militant restaurant industry was up in arms — resulting in a year-long investigation that resulted in 19 companies being ordered to stop forging reviews and pay some $350,000 in fines.
Yelp's policies are naturally against paid reviews, and the company says it uses "sophisticated software to filter out suspicious and less trustworthy reviews," with the result that only 75 per cent of submitted reviews are actually published. They are also going after fakers themselves: the Vancouver Sun reported last week that Yelp was suing a North Vancouver man for submitting fake reviews.