Think Twice about Online Reviews

There’s been a fair amount in the news recently about the dark underbelly of online reviews and bestseller lists. It’s been known for years, for instance, that those with enough funds will buy crates of books in order to boost their sales figures; do it enough and you’ve got a “best seller” on your hands. The plan is simple, effective, and entirely legal. It is understandably assumed that products with robust sales are popular, but this practice effectively cleaves what it means to be a “best seller” into two distinct categories: a product with broad appeal and a product that, well, has sold a lot.

The spirit, and probably the practice, of bulk buying continues, with adaptations, into the online world where everyone is a writer/publisher/critic and the new normal are crowdsourced comments from those familiar with the book/widget/album/restaurant. The results have been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, crowdsourcing works well when used to track flu outbreaks or estimated Wall Street earnings. Indeed, this instance is held up as a model of crowdsourced data at its best — millions of aggregated people/data points reporting in real time with demonstrably useful outcomes that beat traditional models.

However, on sites that employ rating systems — Amazon, Yelp, retailers, etc. — the effectiveness of crowdsourced data is mixed.  After suffering through several terrible curries,  for instance, I have learned that my taste in Indian food is not the same as the typical Yelper. Ideally, sites will evolve that more closely match my aesthetic preferences and my fondness for grown-up English (Chowhound is a chatboard not a crowdsourced ratings site, but it has proven more reliable for me and does not employ cutesy/hip language.  I’m ‘old’ in the online universe, relatively speaking, and I want my English served straight up.) It’s difficult to wade through class and culture differences in online comments, but it can be done.

There are structural challenges to navigating crowdsourced reviews that need to be negotiated, such as the cumulative advantage theory (online evaluations tend to mirror the assessment of the initial post), and the growing shadow class of professional reviewers who, for a fee, will sing the praises of your book/widget/album/restaurant. This practice is not limited to online reviewers, but extends to include marketers and propaganda pushers with a clear agenda who impersonate a disinterested, unaffiliated general public to push explicit corporate agendas.

On the one hand, I admire the entrepreneurial zeal of these individuals who saw a market opportunity and seized it.  On the other hand, it does corrupt the integrity of the entire system, ensuring the best “grassroots” publicity that money can buy.