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Can you trust online reviews?

Online reviews can be a wonderful resource. How else can you find out what dozens of people thought about something you’re looking at buying? Or about a local contractor, shop or restaurant? But can you trust online reviews?

Computer screen showing online reviews

Recognizing fake reviews

It’s very tempting for companies to positively review their own products, or pay other people do to it. Some companies also leave negative reviews for the competition. How can you tell these reviews from the real thing? Here are a few tips:

Fake reviews…

  • …are often from brand new reviewers. One of the most obvious signs of a fake review is that the person’s profile is new and/or they’ve written very few reviews.
  • …often use marketing lingo. While everyone else is talking about whether the restaurant had good service or good food, the fake reviewer will talk about how “warm and welcoming” the atmosphere was. Of course, some genuine reviewers are picking up these pretentious habits and will use similar language. But the fake reviews often sound like a commercial.
  • …sometimes talk about completely different things than other reviewers. Have you ever seen a review thread where several people saying something like, “I’m not sure I got the same product as Other Reviewer, because my experience was very different.” That can mean Other Reviewer’s review was fake.
  • …argue with what other reviewers are saying. Sometimes fake reviewers try to tear down other reviews in a very personal way. This is different from the person who politely disagrees with other reviewers. The fake reviewer thinks the product is terrific and jumps on any reviewer who offers less than glowing feedback.
  • …they are hugely happy or angry about something that most reviewers don’t care about. For example, they will go on and on about what a wonderful guy the owner is and how much charity work he does in the community when everyone else is lamenting the quality of food and service at the restaurant. As if to say people should do him an act of charity by eating in his bad restaurant.

Can you trust online reviews from big sites?

Websites that allow customer reviews should do a good job screening them, but some do better than others. Here are just a few examples.


I buy a lot through Amazon, and find their reviews are usually pretty reliable. I rarely see any I believe are truly fake. However, in recent years, they’ve allowed a lot of reviews in which people go on about how awesome the product is and then end with something like, “I got the product for free, but my opinions are totally honest here, promise.” They may be sincere, but getting something for free makes it much harder to be disappointed by it. I typically ignore these reviews.


Yelp also does a great job screening out fake and paid reviews. I’ve seen a number of situations where a business tried to get a fair negative review removed, or a competitor left an unfair negative review. Yelp has a review process, and I think they usually make the right call in these situations. But of course, nobody is perfect.


It gets trickier when you get to high-end products. I trusted the reviews at Best Buy’s website which when I was helping a relative shop for a computer a couple of years ago. She ended up with a laptop that everybody raved about as a terrifically fast gaming computer. This laptop couldn’t even get on the internet in less time than it takes to get a shower. It was hands down the worst computer I’ve ever encountered. I now seriously doubt those reviews were legitimate – no serious gamer would recommend this computer that’s not even fast enough to satisfy someone who uses it primarily for online shopping and email. But none of those reviews tripped the red flags I talked about above. They seemed legit. When people are trying to push a higher end product, they get more clever about fake reviewing.

Look for date patterns

Another thing to keep in mind with online reviews is the date. Sometimes an item used to be great, but has recently declined in quality – or vice versa. If you’re seeing a lot of negative and positive reviews that sound like they’re not even for the same product, look for date patterns. Sometimes you’ll find all the good reviews are either older or newer, and that tells you the product has changed over time. If you see a lot of inconsistent reviews at all times, that may mean quality control is bad, and some customers are getting a great product while others buying the exact same thing are getting bad batches.

Applying good sense

You get a feel for reviews after a while. If something feels “off” about a review, trust your instinct.