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Internet Information Authenticity and Accountability of Advertising Reviews and Content

Consumer Defense

Summary. This document is a report about the problem of misinformation on the Internet. The report includes tips for consumers, sellers, reviewers, and content creators.

For Consumers. Here are some tips to help consumers understand and navigate the sometimes mirky waters of the Internet.

  1. FTC Regulations and Paid Promoters. The problem of misinformation on the Internet is so rampant that the Federal Trade Commission has passed legislation requiring bloggers and product reviewers to offer full disclosure. If a reviewer has received a gift (financial or otherwise) in exchange for their review, they are required by Federal Law to disclose this fact. The FTC regulations are helpful because (assuming they are abided by) consumers can readily identify what reviews are written by genuine people and which ones are written by paid marketers and endorsers. Here are some points to consider.
    • Paid Promoters are mercenary content writers that often disregard the facts about a product and potentially mislead customers by using false advertising that appears to be a genuine impartial review or article. False advertising claims are then difficult to track since it doesn’t appear that the company is doing the advertising. The employee or contracted worker has greater leeway. The FTC regulations are an attempt to put an end to this. However, many of these people use false identities so they can’t easily be tracked, identified, or brought to justice.
    • A company or individual can encourage their customers to write reviews and promote products (this is common practice), but if they are paid or compensated in any way, disclosure is required.
    • Authors can encourage people (friends, family, and others) to give positive rankings or write reviews for their books. This is common practice. If people don’t have time to write a review, they can click on existing reviews as helpful or not helpful. It helps raise positive awareness about the book, and as long as it’s done with sincerity, it’s not misleading. However, if payment is involved, then that would potentially create a conflict of interest and tainted reviews, and it must be disclosed. In the same spirit, politicians can encourage or inspire people to vote for them, but it’s illegal to pay people for a vote.
    • Sometimes passionate defenders of a company, product, service, or social cause may seem like a paid staff person, but sometimes it’s not the case. They might just have high brand loyalty. For example, someone who is highly dependent upon and benefitting greatly by a product will defend it (and the company) to ensure future longevity. Their payoff is simply the future and possible increased availability of a product or service they like.
    1. Paid Complainers. Perhaps a more rampant problem than paid promoters are the paid complainers. Competitors will pay reviewers and content writers to produce negative reviews of their competition’s products or services. These reviews and articles are not endorsements, so they are not directly addressed by the FTC Regulations described above in #1, but probably should be. Paid complainers usually use fictitious names to hide their true identity and loyalties.
    2. The Ego Factor. When using services like eBay (for example), it’s good to buy from sellers with many products sold and many positive reviews. To a certain degree, the reverse is true when considering the validity of product reviewers. Someone who has reviewed hundreds of products, with an Internet presence that spans multiple websites, either has a lot of free time, or, more likely, is receiving some compensation for their reviews. In some cases, their compensation is simply the ego boost (and greater system access) that comes from having a high rank as a product reviewer or forum participator. For example, some websites give quasi administrative rights to long-time highly ranked members. These people sometimes abuse their power and privileges once they get them. For this reason, the genuine nature of the review and motivation for writing it could be called to question.
    3. Anonymity and False Identities. One of the primary challenges in evaluating and trusting articles and reviews is the increasing prevalence of anonymity and false identities on the Internet. Here are some points to consider:
      • If the person writing the review or article can be validated as a real person, who is using their real name, who has a life outside the world of the Internet, then their reviews have more legitimacy. If they have a blog, website, Facebook account, and YouTube channel, for example, it gives you a more complete picture about who they are and what shapes their opinion.
      • A person with a huge number of product reviews who has no blog, no website, no Facebook presence, or any other public presence external to the persona they created, may be using a false identity. Perform a Google search on their name and something unique about them, like the city they claim to live in. If you discover that Google has no external reference to that person in the real world (content other than what they’ve created), there’s a high probability their identity is fake. If a search of the Internet shows no real-world news about the person other than hundreds of product reviews on numerous websites, they are likely a paid reviewer. Even on Facebook it’s possible for people to create fake identities, so just because a person has a few friends online doesn’t mean they are genuinely who they say they are.
      • Some systems don’t ensure true identities of members, so it’s possible for one person to have numerous accounts which can give a paid complainer (or paid promoter), greater impact. An anonymous person who swiftly comes to the defense of another person may be an undisclosed ally, a paid complainer. Perhaps it’s the same person using multiple accounts or the account of a friend. You can’t be sure when they are hiding behind the shroud of anonymity. Amazon, for example, has a real name feature that authenticates to a person’s credit card. This at least offers a thread of contact with a real person (assuming it’s not a teenager using their parent’s card).
      • When people are hiding behind the mask of anonymity, they are more likely to engage in disruptive and rude behavior online. They can violate online community guidelines without fear because they can’t be disciplined. If their account is closed, they will just come back as someone else.
      1. Disgruntled. Some people are simply disgruntled with life and they are quick to take out their disappointments and frustrations on others. Increasingly, because of the main points #3 and #4 above, and other societal strains, there are a lot more complainers in the world than there are those who have something positive to say. It’s important to read between the lines when reading negative content. Positive articles and reviews that seem fair and balanced are usually more reliable — in the same way that people who have a positive outlook on life are more reliable.
      2. Misinformed. Sometimes, in a race to produce more reviews (see #3, Ego above), people don’t thoroughly attempt to understand the product or service they are reviewing. They may simply be trying to gain as much publicity as possible by posting as many comments as they can or generating as much content as they can. Sometimes a person genuinely misunderstands a product, service, or social message of an organization. This can be an indication that there are unmet expectations or work is needed on the product, service, or message to make it better or easier to understand.
      3. One Sided. We live in a polarized society. People are accustom to thinking and expressing extreme one-sided views. This is reinforced by extremist media, television and radio talk shows and commentaries. Reviews and articles that are genuinely fair and balanced should carry more weight than those that take only one side or seem to be based on personal attack.
      4. The Bad Employee. Sometimes an entire company will get a bad review because of one employee or customer service representative. A single anecdotal experience with one employee isn’t enough, to rate an entire company. Yet this often happens. One bad employee, or good employee having a bad day, shouldn’t determine your view about a company. Sometimes the reverse is true, people will complain to a very nice employee when the real problem is with the company. It’s important to take a holistic and more long-range look at companies.

      For Sellers. The above list of issues can present challenges for people trying to sell a product, service, or simply trying to promote a positive message. Here are some techniques for overcoming the potential problems listed above.

      • FTC Regulations. Make sure you comply with the Federal Trade Commission regulations outlined above in #1.
      • Complainers. It’s a loosing battle to try to engage in a constructive exchange with someone who is paid to complain or motivated to complain for other reasons. Don’t waste time on them. However, there is a fine line here. Legitimate and sincere customer concerns should be listened to and acted upon. Read What Would Google Do for a full explanation of why this is important and how to recognize what complaints are legitimate and which ones aren’t. The book does a good job of addressing #2 through #5 above, and also offers a comprehensive proactive, holistic, open, and positive philosophy about business.
      • Misinformed. The genuine misinformed customer is a vital asset. These people are not among #2 through #5 above. A person who doesn’t understand your product, service, or message should be a red flag to you. You should try to communicate with that person to find out where you failed in explaining your product, service, or message. A person misunderstanding a product, service, or message can be an indication that there are unmet expectations or work is needed on the product, service, or message to make it better. If you can’t communicate with them, take to heart what they’ve expressed. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between complainers and those who are simply misinformed. The genuine misinformed person will engage in a respectful and courteous dialog. The complainer will not attempt to learn or understand but instead will resort to defensive bickering, name calling, and false accusations. If this is the case, refer to #2 above.
      • The Bad Employee. The life and personality of your company, product, service, or message is defined by those who promote it. For companies with franchises, this is particularly an important point. A single bad store that’s unclean or poorly staffed can bring down your entire company image and brand. For those interacting with the public on the Internet, make sure employees are thoroughly trained to know how to identify potential flamers and paid complainers. Skilled, well trained, and self-controlled employees will avoid confrontation completely, or quickly disengage from confrontational people who can’t be satisfied. Even the best of people can be sucked in by a skilled heckler and brought down to their level. It’s never a battle one can win. Try to as quickly as possible discern between perpetual complainers and those who are interested in cooperation and understanding.

        For Reviewers and Writers. Assuming you are genuine and sincere, here are some guidelines for maintaining authenticity in reviews and articles.

        • FTC Regulations. Make sure you comply with the Federal Trade Commission regulations outlined above in #1. If you receive products, discounts, or other favors, let that be known. However, your reviews will likely carry more weight if you don’t receive compensation for them. Even if you don’t receive any compensation, you may need to remind your readers or viewers of that fact. Even though you’re not required by law, it can help affirm your impartiality.
        • Complaints. Don’t be a complainer. Avoid personal attacks. Choose to review products, services, or issues you are enthusiastic about. It will make your writing better. Why waste time writing about what is negative in the world? If you feel a product, service, or message may be detrimental to others, and it deserves a critical review, then do so respectfully and make sure you have your facts straight. Try to offer some genuine balance and praise in addition to criticism, and don’t get personal. In general, we are more passionate and effective when writing about things we believe in rather than things that frustrate us.

          Spotting Fake Reviews. Spotting Fake Ratings and Reviews. It’s helpful for consumers, vendors, and reviewers to be able to identify fake reviews. Here are some guidelines to follow:

          • Mixed Reviews. When reviews are substantially contradictory, this is an indication that something is wrong. For example, some products have serious design flaws that can be documented by third parties or even by the product manufacturer. Those flaws are not based on opinion, but integral to the product. If there are a high number of positive reviews despite the serious (documentable) design flaw, then those positive reviews may be fake.
          • Review Quantity. A high quantity of reviews could indicated high public popularity. However, if many of the reviews are extremely positive or negative, but few in between, it could be an indication that some are not authentic. A low quantity of reviews (like 10 to 20) over a long period of time (such as a year or two), suggests it is unlikely that effort was made to post fake reviews.
          • Review Ratings. Written and video reviews help provide feedback about products, services, and companies. These reviews are often ranked by site visitors so that helpful and genuine reviews can float to the top. It’s very revealing to assess the average helpful or not helpful votes. Those who like the product, will typically mark positive reviews as helpful (and negative reviews as unhelpful). Those who don’t like a product will typically mark negative reviews as helpful (and positive reviews as unhelpful). There would typically be roughly an even breakdown among the various reviews. It’s unusual for many people to vote only on a single review, and almost statistically impossible to find (for example) only one review among 10 to 20 that garners high numbers of votes. If a single review receives very high rankings, and that review isn’t balanced but instead very critical of the product, service, or company it’s likely that the votes are artificially inflated. This is even more likely the fact if the other negative reviews have very few votes. If people are highly dissatisfied with a product, they will give helpful votes for all of the negative reviews. A further indicator of the honesty and authenticity of a review is if the review is not consistent with reviews and feedback on other sites.

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          By Greg Johnson

          Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com