Ask LH: When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

Dear Lifehacker, I know a lot of online reviews can be fake, and others are just written by angry people. How can I separate useful reviews from crappy ones? I don’t want to avoid something good because someone lied, but I don’t want to throw my money away either. Thanks, Concerned Consumer

Title photo made using jesadaphorn (Shutterstock). Additional photos by Linda Tanner and Yi Chen.

Dear Concerned Consumer,

You’re right, online reviews can be tricky to navigate. However, there’s a lot you can learn from the general tone of online reviews. Scanning for commonalities across time or complaints is key. There are some places where reviews are useful, and other places you should expect to find fake reviews by the dozen. Let’s break it all down, and bring your salt with you — you’ll need several grains of it for everything you read.

Learn To Quickly Spot Fake Reviews

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

Whether they’re bad reviews from angry people (or competitors), or glowing reviews from a company’s management, fake reviews skew the truth. If you’re going to derive any use from the online reviews you read, the first thing to learn is how to spot the fake ones. We’ve offered some detailed tips before that can help you, and the big tells remain constant:

  • No review history, or newly created, anonymous accounts
  • An all-negative or all-positive review with no caveats
  • A review full of empty adjectives and either pure glowing praise or seemingly unsubstantiated anger
  • Exact, to the letter, details and proper names of products and services (to the point where only someone affiliated with the company would use specific nouns and trademarks)
  • A review history that consists entirely of overly negative or overly positive reviews — an indicator of a troll account, someone who only reviews to vent, or conversely employees or PR for a company

Fake reviews can be more complicated and there’s no foolproof way to detect them, but the important thing is to turn your BS detector to high while you read. You usually have dozens to read through, so if any particular one seems fishy, toss it out. One thing to remember: Ignore outliers. If a review is overly glowing with nothing but great things to say, or overly negative with nothing but hate and vitriol, ignore it. You’re better off reading more measured and even-handed replies.

Be Careful With Reviews On Specialty Sites

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

Whether you’re looking for a doctor, a rental apartment, or a great university class, there’s a review site that caters to you. Sites that offer reviews on specific categories or products can be helpful, but they suffer from self-selection bias. In other words, the only people who submit reviews are often people there solely to complain, because they feel like it’s the only place to air their grievances.

Often the only reason anyone has to “review” their doctor or apartment complex is if they have a complaint they want others to hear. Happy people often don’t take to the internet to write paragraphs about their experience — even if they should to balance the scales a bit. Again, none of that is to say the reviews there aren’t useful or worth reading. You should just go in with both eyes open.

Read The General Tone, And Note Common Complaints

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

If you’re going to pick up anything useful from online reviews, you’ll need to learn to identify their general tone and pick up on common threads across reviews quickly. A single review is less valuable than hundreds that all seem to trend positive, or a dozen that all note the same complaint. A quick scan the user reviews and getting a feeling for their overall tone will give you lots of useful information.

Once you get a feel for what the general experiences of customers or buyers looked like, you can make good call for yourself. Too often we perceive a four-or-five star review as “OK” and anything less as unacceptable, but some of my favourite restaurants average 2.5 or 3 stars on Yelp. If I’d focused on star reviews only, I may have avoided them, but a scan of their reviews reveals that no one thought there was anything wrong — they just weren’t blown away.

Similarly, if you do see common complaints crop up in multiple reviews, make a note. If everyone reviewing an apartment complex complains about being able to hear their neighbours, you can safely assume that the place has thin walls. You can also use those common complaints to inform your experience and buck the trend. For example, if everyone reviews a pair of headphones poorly for being “too bassy” but everything you listen to is bassy and you like your headphones that way, they may be the cans for you, no matter what the reviews say. Keep an open mind, and remember, online reviews almost never tell the whole story.

Check For Updated Reviews Or Feedback

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

Some of the most interesting and enlightening reviews I’ve seen are on sites where companies are allowed to respond to reviews left on their businesses. Newegg is a good example of this. Comparing motherboards feature-by-feature is helpful, but there’s something great about seeing a company rep responding to reviews and offering to help people who have had issues. One of my favourite neighbourhood liquor stores has a manager who’s well-known for taking customers to task in Yelp reviews who reviewed them poorly for a problem of their own making, or outright lied. That honesty and passion for their business is one reason I love the place.

In both cases, you can learn a lot from the responses, and the subsequently updated reviews. Whether they reach out and offer to help, go the extra mile for their customer, or just clear the air, sometimes you find someone you want to do business with, regardless of what the actual customer reviews say.

Stay Skeptical, and Contribute Your Own Reviews

When Should I Trust Online Reviews?

It’s important to take whatever you read with a grain of salt, positive or negative. Every review you see will come filtered through the lens of the internet. In some cases that means reviewers forget that a real person, a lot like you, is on the other side of the screen. Similarly, anonymity does strange things to otherwise normal, honest people. With luck, you’ll have enough reviews for whatever you buy or wherever you plan to go that you can pick and choose what’s useful. Even if you can’t, sentiment is what’s really important.

Many people say they just read the negatives and look for commonalities, or just read the positives and look for balanced experiences. You can go that route, but doing either blinds you to the validity of the others. A smart reading (or smart speed reading) or everything will serve you better on most sites.

Finally, when you do visit that restaurant, or buy that product, make sure to come back and leave your own review. The only way to make online reviews legitimate and useful is to contribute the good ones that you and other people actually want to read. Remember, the internet is what we make it.


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