Digital World: Reviewing the online reviewers

Theoretically, no one should ever make a mistake buying anything anymore. How can you go wrong?

Opinion, opinions – everyone’s got one. But what are they worth?
To you and me, reviews are good for entertainment value. All of us like an interesting movie review, for example, especially the “mean” ones that lace into the actors, director, studio, etc. Unless, that is, we’re planning to actually see the movie; then, we want an honest, straightforward, non-sarcastic review, because now it’s our dime!
Once we’re considering spending our money, we want to know we’re not wasting it, and we rely on that movie review to guide us. It’s the same thing for TV reviews. Even though the show is “free” (we’re paying for the cable or satellite anyway), we are investing our time. So, we read the review in advance to make sure we’re not wasting any money.
And who are the people we rely on for movie and TV reviews? Well, traditionally, they have been “professional” reviewers writing for newspapers and magazines or hosting TV or radio shows. For many people (including me), that goes for even now, in the Internet era; when I want to check out a movie review, for example, I’ll usually surf to Rotten Tomatoes (, which gathers up reviews for movies from major newspapers and well-known blog sites. I feel I can trust the writers of those reviews.
Until the Internet, most publications restricted their reviews to entertainment items: movies, plays, music, etc. But there was surprisingly little peer review of consumer items (except for cars). What did you do if you wanted to know whether a particular TV set, video camera or refrigerator was worth the money? Why, you’d “shop around” – a term that consumers took to mean doing things like asking friends or quizzing salespeople.
But for the most part, buying a major appliance was an act of faith, because there were only a limited number of friends who probably bought the same item you were interested in – and of course, the salesperson wasn’t going to knock his/her own product.
But today, when you can ask anyone you want about anything, you’re not limited to checking out an item among people you personally know. You can find out what people think about consumer items on thousands of Web sites, where millions of people have posted tens of millions of opinions on hundreds of millions of items!
Theoretically, no one should ever make a mistake buying anything anymore. When considering a product, all one has to do these days is check out the Internet and see what “the cloud” has to say about the item in question. No longer does spending money have to be an act of faith; all you have to do is take your own online poll of what others who have spent money on the same item you’re considering say. How can you go wrong?
Here’s how: Have you ever posted an online review at a site like Amazon? Probably not; most people don’t unless they have some kind of motivation. has become one of the premier review sites for products of all kinds. The site sells everything, and the product page (for every product) has useful information of all types about what you’re buying – including, and most important for our purposes, reviews of the product.
Whose doing the posting? Well, we assume it’s people who have bought the item. But how do we know? Maybe a negative review was posted by someone working for a company making a rival product who is seeking to push sales in their direction – or who is afraid of losing his job?
While it’s hard to believe that someone would bother “gaming” review sites like this, it makes sense when you begin to realize just how pervasive Internet shopping is – both for those who buy online and those who check out products on sites such as Amazon before buying retail.
In one sense, posting a review in an online forum can amount to free advertising – both positive and negative – when used astutely. And apparently there are some who do use review forums astutely, posting reviews for any number of reasons: promotion (self or product), revenge (against hated corporations), online socializing (participating in the “review community”), etc.
Doesn’t anyone post a review for its own sake? Of course, but you have to be plenty motivated (or bored, or angry, etc.) to bother with reviewing products.
The possibility (and possible phenomenon) of product opinion manipulation has been noticed by others – including noted author Stephen Dubner, who co-wrote the book Freakonomics. Dubner notes in a blog posting ( that he checked out one particular reviewer whom, he says, re-dates reviews to keep them near the top of the review list of chronological reviews on Amazon (the left review column), as well as on top of the overall review list for a product (the right review column).
“I noticed this only because the same two-star review of Freakonomics kept magically appearing near the top of the reviews page,” Dubner writes, adding that the reviewer, for his own motives, posted a negative review of his book, which, citing a scholarly study, may have impacted online sales.
I checked out the reviewer in question and discovered that, indeed, he was at the top of the Freakonomics review list – as well as at the top of reviews on dozens of other pages as well! Books, movies, CDs – the reviewer in question has over 2,000 to his credit, many of them quite extensive and well-written. Interestingly, every couple of days, five or six reviews appear under his name, many of them for older movies or books.
Is there “re-dating” of reviews going on, like Dubner says? It’s impossible to know (unless you’re an employee of Amazon and have access to their server data). But it certainly makes you wonder!
This is not, by the way, to imply any nefarious intent on the part ofthe reviewer; his profile indicates that he’s retired, so it’s possiblethat reviewing on Amazon is this gentleman’s second career. But even ifhe’s on the up and up, is it not possible that others are gaming thesystem – for fun and profit?
Most disturbing to me is that Dubner’s blog posting is from 2005, whilethe reviewer is still hard at work, with his name still at the top ofthe review list on all the products he’s reviewed, for all I know (Ididn’t check out all the 2,100-plus product pages). And he’s not eventhe No. 1 reviewer on Amazon, meaning that if there are “tactics” atwork here, there may be a couple of thousand other people who are usingthem even more effectively.
You’d think Amazon would want to do everything it could to assureconsumers that they can rely on reviews appearing on product pages. Ididn’t look too deeply into other review sites, but if Amazon can bemanipulated, others can be as well, cant’ they?