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OMG, my new TV has changed my life.

ANALYSIS

Someone writing under the moniker “simmomelb” has this to say in a customer review of a high-end Sharp digital TV, posted on a retailer's website: “Wow wow wow. This TV is insane, the picture quality is simply superb for such a large screen, setting it up just a breeze, and the included factory 3 year warranty is peace of mind. Sharp you have simply blown the competition out of the water this time, this is pure perfection!”

Simmomelb is one of four exuberantly glowing testimonials appearing at the very top of the product's review listing. But “Ayks”, whose review appears directly underneath the top four, had a very different take, sourly giving the TV a star rating of just one for the three attributes of value, quality and price.

Unfortunately, the reader will never really know for sure if any of the five actually bought the TV in the first place, much less if they really believe what they say about it. Submitting a review didn't require that the writer bought the TV – only that he entered a nickname, review title and review, and then clicked the submit button.

If reviews on retailer and social media sites are ever to fulfil their promise as a premier influencer over consumer buying decisions, consumers need to be able to trust them. Yet technology research firm Gartner has predicted that by 2014 up to 15 per cent of all social media ratings and reviews will be fakes.

Worse, retailers are paying for these fakes with cash, coupons and other non-cash incentives.

In one high-profile case, it emerged last year in the UK that hotels were bribing guests to give them positive reviews on TripAdvisor.

Regulatory agencies are now taking a dim view of these kinds of shenanigans. The US Federal Trade Commission, for example, has ruled that paying for positive reviews without disclosing that the reviewer has been compensated amounts to deceptive advertising and is prosecutable.

One technology company is betting that the better retailers and service providers will ultimately see competitive advantage in encouraging legitimate and honest reviews from their consumers.

This is Reevoo.com, a UK-based social commerce company that has just launched in Australia. Reevoo provides a cloud-based customer review platform for its client firms which is designed to filter out the fakes and give consumers a trustworthy resource for assessing products and services.

Reevoo places itself squarely between the buyer/reviewer and the seller, ensuring that the reviewer did actually buy the product and that the contents of the review are appropriate – whether or not they are positive or negative. The reviews, once independently vetted and verified, are embedded in the seller's website.

Reevoo's philosophy – apparently endorsed by its almost 200 worldwide clients - is that firms who believe in their products and services enough to risk hanging out the good, the bad and the ugly reviews for public viewing, will ultimately hold a competitive advantage over those who try to hide their dirty laundry. The technology also gives its client companies the ability to respond to customer comments and join in the social conversation.

Better yet, says Reevoo's CEO Steve Hurn: “Reviews are a rich source of the kind of keyword-rich content that search engines love. When properly managed, the user-generated content turns into a resource for increasing traffic.”

From the consumer standpoint, detecting fake reviews can be really tough. Researchers at Cornell University used computer analysis to identify “opinion spam” and claimed to be 90 per cent successful across a sample of 800 reviews of Chicago hotels.

Real humans were nowhere near as good. In the course of the research, fake positive reviews were intentionally posted to the websites of 20 hotels and a panel of three undergraduate students were asked to judge the veracity of these and an equal number of verified truthful reviews. The students fared poorly.

According to the Cornell research, fake reviews tend to use more verbs and fewer nouns and include more “scene-setting” content that has no direct bearing on the product.

According to my count, the review by “simmomelb" of the digital TV above contains six verbs (five actual and one implied) and offers a lot of extraneous detail, particularly the last sentence. Is it a fake? You be the judge.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.

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