If you make it to the bottom of all the customer reviews on Yelp, you'll find the word "Filtered" in tiny gray type. The curious can click on it to peel back the curtain on a web epidemic: fake online product and service reviews.
Yelp, which offers ratings on local businesses, employs a secret algorithm to root out reviews written by someone with an agenda -- to hype a store or demolish its reputation. Some legit reviews do get caught in the filter, says Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose. "We believe it's worth the cost of suppressing a potentially legitimate review." Fake reviews would wind up destroying the site's credibility.
You needn't employ a secret algorithm to ferret out the fakes. Follow these tips to find the critiques that count:
1. Watch out for the fabulous! "Effusive, positive writing and lots of exclamation points are probably the No. 1 red flag," says Christine Frietchen, editor in chief of the merchandise-review site ConsumerSearch.com. "When was the last time you used a product that was perfect in every way?" Human beings -- real ones writing actual reviews -- tend to share the good and the bad. When Frietchen shops on Amazon she tends to ignore the five-star and one-star reviews, focusing on the three and four-star ones: Consumers are happy but have some gripes, such as when a blender does a great job mixing but weighs too much or takes up a lot of counter space. Be equally alert for scathing notices because they could be written by someone with an axe to grind or by a competitor.
2. Beware of perfect wording. If the phrasing flows like ad copy, it probably is, warns Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor for Consumer Reports. Review factories are offering $10 for every 5-star review on the e-commerce giant Amazon, the New York Times reported. On that note, Blyskal figures someone waxing poetic about $5 socks should not be taken seriously. "It's just out of proportion to what it is," he said to DailyFinance.
4. Nab the repeat offenders. "If the reviewer has reviewed several products in a single category, that is also cause for concern," says Matt Moog, founder and CEO of the review-aggregator Viewpoints.com. How many toasters can one person own to review?
5. Read lots of reviews. Deborah Martin, a self-employed New Yorker who recently bought vitamins through the e-commerce giant Amazon, reads reviews on Amazon and many other platforms before she makes her purchase. "If you rely on more than one source for reviews, your chances for getting biased reviews are significantly diminished," she says.
6. Check the source. If there's only one or two reviews for a particular item, click on the name of the reviewer(s) if you can. They should link to the reviewer's profile and previous reviews, or a social media page that shows the reviewer is the real deal. In the case of Yelp and Amazon and some other consumer sites, the link should lead to other reviews the person has written on the same site. You can also Google to see if the authors have written product appraisals elsewhere. Authentic consumers who take the time to pen reviews have generally done this kind of thing before. Investigate if the author has written praise about a competitor elsewhere, or if he or she mentions a rival, suggests Melinda Morris. She says her Brooklyn, N.Y., invitation business Lion in the Sun was burned by someone who recounted an incident of rudeness that never happened.
7. Bail on the boilerplate. A rash of reviews written on the same day, the appearance of the same review more than once, and reviews that repeat the full name and model of a product several times, are tell-tale signs that a template is being used to crank out false critiques, Frietchen advises. Avoid them.
Everyone's a critic, the old saying goes, but not all critics are who you think they are.
Also See: How the Buyer Should Beware