A Review of Internet Reviews

Posted on Nov 06, 2011
Imagine you're on a trip to a city that you're unfamiliar with and it's time to get dinner. Luckily, you and your friends have just wandered in to Chinatown, and everyone agrees that Chinese food is the order of the day.

There's just one problem - you've spotted three viable candidates for your choice of restaurant and you have no information with which to make your decision. Naturally, you whip out your smart phone and quickly pull up some reviews.
  • Restaurant A has 5 positive reviews and no negative reviews. All the reviews give glowing commentary, and score it 5/5.
  • Restaurant B has 5 negative reviews, all with scathing commentary.
  • Restaurant C has no reviews.

The choice seems obvious, and indeed no one could fault you for dining at restaurant A, but has your decision been as wisely informed as it would seem? There are two main reasons why I would argue that choosing randomly from your three restaurant options is just as likely to land you in the best restaurant.

The first is the fact that many more people are sufficiently motivated to write a negative review than are willing to write a positive one. When people receive an acceptable meal, they go about their lives. When people receive something they consider subpar, they vent their negative feelings by pounding away at their keyboard. Additionally, the anonymity of the internet allows reviewers to be much harsher than they would have been if asked to give their opinion face-to-face. We've all been surprised at some point to discover that a restaurant we frequent has unduly negative reviews, and this is why.

Restaurant B's reviews are undoubtedly skewed by this effect - the hundreds of customers who leave satisfied (but perhaps not sufficiently impressed to write a positive review) are not represented.

To make matters worse, many reviewers will go so far as to leave multiple negative reviews, further skewing results. The giveaway is often that the reviewer, in their vengeance-seeking state, will misspell the same words or make the same grammatical errors across their multiple negative reviews. Even those who can write competently are discovered by their similar writing style or unique word choices. Indeed I have verified this effect by analyzing the comments on some of the websites I administrator - many negative reviews come from the same IP address, and are often posted within a short period of time of one another.

The second reason our restaurant reviews may be skewed is simple deceit. Businesses are aware of the importance of internet reviews in the decision-making process of consumers, and there's nothing stopping them from logging on and pumping up the reviews of their business. Marketing companies even offer "online reputation services", which means that, for a fee, they'll spam review sites for you. This is almost always part of online advertising campaigns for larger companies nowadays, but it only takes a quick skim through craigslist to find an entrepreneurial deceit-reviewer willing to write glowing reviews for $10 a pop.

Researchers at Cornell recently published an interesting paper discussing their efforts to detect deceitful reviews using a computer algorithm. The findings show that deceptive reviews can be detected with 90% accuracy simply by analyzing the choice of words in the review. This compares favourably against a detection rate barely above 50% for humans, proving that it is nearly impossible for even the experienced net-user to detect when they are being deceived.

To make matters worse, deceitful positive reviews are only part of the story. Businesses can, and do, also slander their competitors by using negative reviews. It is quite possible that restaurant A has not only provided all of their own positive reviews, but also written all of restaurant B's negative reviews.

There is one more reason why you should take reviews with a grain of salt (or MSG): the simple fact that not everyone has the same notion of what constitutes good Chinese food. Read reviews for their content, not the aggregated score. For example, a negative review which complains that the food is not authentic may be completely irrelevant to you if all you're interested in finding a decent plate of sweet and sour chicken balls.

All is not lost, though, for I do have a suggestion for our hungry travelers - ask someone face-to-face. Someone leaving the restaurant you're considering will nearly always provide you with a more honest (and up-to-date) review.

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Mike at Chance Cove, NL - photo by Angelina Friskney, http://angelinafriskney.com