Secret review groups may skew online eCommerce ratings

Secret review groups may skew online eCommerce ratings
Ben Bowman

Ben Bowman

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It’s no secret that online reviews play a huge role in what products we purchase. Virtually every eCommerce site allows users to leave reviews. In order to save time and aggravation, we often sort by “most recommended.” But that’s a loophole some manufacturers are looking to exploit.

Online reviews

In some cases, fake reviews flood these sites. It’s hard to know whether you’re dealing with an actual human’s review or something generated by a bot or an army of spam reviewers. In other cases, real people might be compensated to leave a positive review. But there’s a very grey area that doesn’t get a lot of publicity…

Does free stuff influence online reviews?

Some online retailers offer a program where companies can give their products to “trusted reviewers” for free. The reviewers get to keep the product in exchange for sharing their opinion of it. But it’s fair to wonder if the “free stuff” has an impact on those reviewers.

For Amazon, the program is called Vine. For Home Depot, it’s Seeds. For Lowe’s, it’s called Loop (and there’s no link on their website to provide details).

Let’s say you’re a grill manufacturer, hoping to get a slew of 5-star reviews on a page as soon as your new model of grill hits store shelves. To accomplish this, you might hook up with one of those retailers to identify the “good” reviewers on the site. You’ll send them a free, brand-new grill before it’s available to the general public. The reviewer tries the grill, enjoys it, and gets to keep it, so they write up a favorable review. When the grill goes on sale to everyone else, it already has a head start with a handful of positive reviews.

Of course, it makes sense that any manufacturer would want positive reviews. And it helps if those reviews come from real people. But the clear ethical dilemma is that these reviewers don’t have to pay for the item they’re testing. To put it another way, you’re likely to be happy with virtually any free pizza, but if you have to plunk down $20, your standards are probably going to be higher.

We understand the impulse to get the quick and fast recommendation from your fellow users, but if you’re weighing a major purchase, it’s worthwhile to take your cues from a site like The Wirecutter, Consumer Reports, or Mr. Dad Reviews. In each case, you have real people testing products and giving unbiased feedback. Those publications pay for each of the products they test, so they won’t be influenced by any under-the-table money.

As always, it’s best to maintain a healthy skepticism with any review, but once you know some reviewers are getting free stuff for their participation, it’s one more reason for mistrust.

Ben Bowman

Ben Bowman

Ben Bowman is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who led's editorial team in 2018 and 2019. Before joining Softonic, he was the Head of Content for and a news producer for NBC, Fox, and CBS. He is an award-winning filmmaker and director of sketch and improv comedy, and a contributing writer for the Pitch comedy app.

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