‘You can’t trust anything you read online.’

A frequently heard sentence made sadder because it’s true. From its early days as something created by researchers for researchers, to the commercialised, widely accessible platform we see today, the internet has carried the challenge of inviting trust like a 100m sprinter shackled to a dumbbell. Unfortunately, the weight is getting heavier and unless we change something, we are likely to take a stumble in the race to better interconnectivity.

Ironically, one of the methods created to invite trust has turned out to be a powerful agent for its erosion. After realising that consumers were less willing to just take their word for how good a product was, companies gave them the opportunity to take other people’s word instead, through online review systems either on their own websites (like Amazon) or through websites dedicated to consumer generated reviews (like Yelp and TripAdvisor). A sound concept, except that it has now been made clear that both businesses and consumers are gaming the system on a massive level:

Businesses are using employees to write glowing reviews for their own products, paying external individuals to write positive reviews, and cherry picking any actual user-generated reviews so that only the best ones appear. Equally, enterprising individuals are openly advertising and selling their review writing services online – £56 can get a book to the top of an Amazon ebook list, as revealed by this Sunday Times investigation.

Amazon has had enough. The online retail titan has filed a lawsuit against more than 1,000 individuals who allegedly posted fake product reviews on the site. Whether it is successful or not, the lawsuit signals a clear message to fake reviewers, especially those who blatantly advertise their services on websites like Fiverr. It also sends a warning to vendors who seek out fake reviewers for their products.

Amazon’s unprecedented action reveals just how big a deal online consumer reviews are – an estimated £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews, according to a 2015 report by the Competition & Markets Authority. Making reviews as useful and trustworthy as possible is key to keeping that channel open and valued. “If consumers can’t rely on the content,” says Vince Sollitto of Yelp, “then the service is of no value.”
Online Reviews research
Some people like to point out that ‘you wouldn’t trust the word of a stranger on the street, so why would you trust them online?‘ but the truth is that we very much do trust the words of strangers on the street, often with valuable and weighty subjects: we trust that the bank teller is going to give us our money back, we trust that the car coming towards us isn’t going to swerve out of its lane, and we trust that the policeman is going to stop us from being mugged as we walk down the street. As a society, we have built a system where impersonal trust is possible and accepted, but we haven’t created the same opportunities online. At Yoti, we think that a large part of the fake reviews problem exists because comments can be posted by users who don’t have to use real, consistent and singular identities. We believe we have the answer though:

Imagine a website where a review could only have been left by (and is attributed to) a real person. Where a person logging in to leave a review would have to prove their name and age to the website owners, but could then choose to hide that data from other visitors to the site. A platform where it was impossible for someone to create multiple identities in order to post multiple reviews of the same product.

From March 2016, businesses and consumers will be able to use our innovative digital identity app, Yoti. You can find out about our mission to provide people with a free and secure way of proving their identity here.

In the meantime: Caveat Emptor – ‘Let the buyer beware’. Rather than taking other people’s reviews as hard truths, they should be used as jigsaw pieces that build up a picture of the product you would like to buy – with more or less needed depending on the value you place on the item you want. Need a new EU plug adaptor? Two good reviews from different sources might be enough. Need a new laptop? Ten or more reviews from different websites would give you a decent idea of what you are buying.

By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv

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