Those Five-Star Reviews

How important are consumer-generated reviews in your purchase-making decisions? If you’re like me, the answer is VERY. When assessing hotels, the write-ups on Virtual Tourist and Trip Advisor invariably make or break my booking. The reviews on Yelp play the deciding role in tipping the restaurant scales. Same with Fandango for movie reviews.

Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, Amazon, which recognized the intrinsic value of its customers’ reviews early on in the game. It even applied for and was granted a patent.

As I think about it, nearly all of the big-branded retail websites today allow customers to weigh in — good, bad and ugly. More importantly, these “peer” reviews have attained such influence, they’ve pretty much usurped the influence of professional gadget, restaurant, and film reviewers at media outlets like CNET, New York and TIME magazine, respectively, who do this full-time for a living.

One, two, five stars…how ripe are these reviews for gaming? Wouldn’t an enterprising marketing executive fork over some dollars to elevate the ratings for his company’s product or service? A computer scientist at the University of Illinois tells The New York Times:

“More people are depending on reviews for what to buy and where to go, so the incentives for faking are getting bigger,” said Mr. Liu. “It’s a very cheap way of marketing.”

A few years back, I wrote about how one cruise line (smartly) cultivated some prolific bloggers whom they identified as rabid fans of the cruise line. Consumerist cried foul, implying that the company was resorting (excuse the pun) to a pay-for-positive-play scheme.

The ubiquity of consumer reviews on e-commerce sites has given rise to more sophisticated methods to manage this increasingly important determinant of purchase decisions — from the perspectives of both retailer and manufacturer. When it was learned that an author of a book being sold on Amazon had pseudonymously written a review of his own work, Amazon stepped up efforts to shore up the sanctity of its reviews. Or so I thought at the time.

A piece in today’s New York Times lets shoppers know that there’s still some gaming going on. One firm made a business out of selling rating stars for $10 a piece.

“By the time VIP Deals ended its rebate on late last month, its leather case for the Kindle Fire was receiving the sort of acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-il.”

Of course, it’s one thing for the retailer to monitor and moderate the reviews posted to its site — if that’s even scalable at Amazon given the number of reviews it hosts — and another to put the kabash on companies outside its control who seek to capitalize on this new “very cheap way of marketing” that permeates the world of e-commerce. The Times alerted Amazon to its findings, which prompted Amazon to reply that:

“…its guidelines prohibited compensation for customer reviews. A few days later, it deleted all the reviews for the case, which itself was listed as unavailable. Then it took down the product page itself.

Asked why Amazon did not seem to notice that at least a few consumers called into question the VIP deal on its own site, a spokeswoman declined to comment. Nor would she say exactly what happened to VIP’s other products, like the Vipertek VTS-880 mini stun gun, which also disappeared from the retailer.”

If the world’s largest online retailer can’t fully get its grips around the duplicity that exists within its consumer reviews section, just think about the myriad other online retailers hosting such reviews.

Maybe I’ll rethink my blind reliance on these reviews when I purchase my new video camera, and head back to CNET or gdgt whose motto is “Reviews from people who actually know.” As for pricing and interface, Amazon, you still rule.

Update: Received a link to Big River Review via email after my post appeared.