Let’s say you’re interested in buying new furniture for your home office. There are thousands of online vendors selling home office furniture, so it’s important to figure out which vendors are worth exploring and which ones should be ignored. Every office furniture website is going to claim that its selection and prices are the best, so you can’t exactly trust them. You also can’t trust marketing and advertising materials, which are typically designed specifically to get you to buy stuff.

That’s why so many people turn to trust online reviews – short snippets of critical reviews left by previous customers.

But can you even trust online reviews?

The Problems With Online Reviews

You can find online reviews almost anywhere – on company websites, on social media, on dedicated review sites, and on community pages. But can you trust what you’re reading enough to fuel your purchasing decision?

There are a few problems to sort out:

· Fake reviews. For starters, there are fake reviews. Fake reviews have been around for as long as reviews have; companies either write their own “customer” reviews or pay someone to do it for them. In a matter of hours, they can have dozens, or even hundreds of fabricated customer experiences that claim “this is the best product I’ve ever bought,” or “worth it, 100 percent.” Many third-party sites take it upon themselves to identify and weed out fake reviews, but thanks to a combination of AI and higher spending on fake reviews, these fraudulent creations are getting more sophisticated (and much harder to spot). Even if you’re reading a review on a third-party website you trust, there’s a chance the company paid to have this review written.
· Influenced reviews. Influenced reviews are critical reviews that are submitted by users who were functionally bribed to do so. They’re not fake reviews, exactly, because the writer is a real person who truly used this product. The difference is, this company may have paid them to post a good review, or may have reached out to them secretly to make their experience seem better than it actually was.
· Extreme reviews. Let’s say the company in question isn’t involved in customer reviews whatsoever. They don’t pay for fake reviews, nor do they attempt to persuade people to leave more positive reviews than they’d otherwise leave. There’s still a problem with “extreme” reviews – reviews that exaggerate certain features of a product or service for one reason or another. For example, a company loyalist who loves this brand might give a 5-star review to a mediocre product just because they love the brand and want it to succeed. Alternatively, someone with a personal grudge against the company might leave a 1-star review, despite the product being actually quite good.

How to Evaluate Online Reviews

So can you trust online customer reviews? Yes and no. On some level, you can’t take customer reviews at face value. You’ll never know for sure whether the review is sincere, authentic, and accurate. But you can derive value from multiple online reviews, provided you take these measures:

· Use trusted review sites. It’s easy for a company to post fake or modified reviews on its own site. It’s a lot harder to get those reviews posted on third-party sites that verify review authenticity and consistently remove low-quality reviews. Look for trusted third-party sources – especially niche review sites that focus on businesses that fit a specific category.
· Look at a variety of different reviews. Don’t form your opinion based on one review, or even a couple of reviews. Instead, read as many reviews as you can. Oftentimes, it’s only after reading a dozen or more reviews, with a variety of different star ratings, that you truly learn the strengths, weaknesses, and quirks of a given product.
· Examine supporting evidence. Do these reviews have other forms of evidence that can verify the integrity of the review? For example, did the reviewer include any photos or videos of their experience with the product? If so, you can trust the review more than an average review.
· Look beyond the star rating. People love to reduce their reviews down to a simple numerical value, but there’s only so much a star rating can tell you. Don’t just look at the 5-star or 1-star rating; read what the person has to say, and why they decided to give the product this rating.

Online reviews can be a valuable tool for learning more about a set of products, or even an entire company. But with so many fake reviews, influenced reviews, and biased, extreme reviews in circulation, you’ll need to take several precautions to ensure you’re interpreting those reviews correctly. 

Fortunately, it’s not that much extra work – so there’s no excuse not to follow it!