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How Far Should We Trust Online Reviews?

With the goal of ending this editor's note in an upbeat way, let's start with the, er, less reassuring results of a recent undercover investigation by Daily Tech about whether Internet sites that routinely evaluated hardware were accepting payola in exchange for reviews.
What do you want first, the good or the bad news?

With the goal of ending this editor's note in an upbeat way, let's start with the, er, less reassuring results of a recent undercover investigation by Daily Tech about whether Internet sites that routinely evaluated hardware were accepting payola in exchange for reviews.Daily Tech found that 20 percent-or one in five-did. That's a disturbingly hefty percentage. And given that more and more people are basing important purchasing decisions on online research--one study found that 90 percent of shoppers "always" or "sometimes" buy the exact brand that their online research came up with--the stakes are high.

(One of the interesting tidbits the article offered was the origin of the word payola, which turns out to be a combination of "pay" and "Victrola" coined in the 1960s to describe the growing practice of record companies paying radio stations to push new records. It turns out that there are laws governing this kind of activity for most broadcast mediums, but not the Internet.)

On the good news side, 66 percent of publications did not accept payola for reviews. That's reassuring. But as the article notes, with no standards--legal or ethical--governing this kind of practice online, consumers as well as businesses are more vulnerable than they might realize.

But balancing any for-pay bias on the part of expert reviews is the growing volume--and importance--of user-generated reviews. Jupiter Media found that 77 percent of Internet users most trusted those reviews left by other users. Brandweek found that a smaller, but still significant, proportion of online shoppers--33 percent--trusted user reviews over traditional ads or expert reviews.

This provides a nice system of checks and balances. After all, if the consensus of the masses is radically different from the opinion of a single so-called expert, this raises a red flag that will almost certainly cause a shopper to investigate further and be more cautious before making a purchasing decision. The chance that a vendor can unduly influence purchasing decisions en masse will almost certainly diminish.

What do you think? What do you trust more, user-generated reviews or official reviews posted by online publications? How do you discriminate between the massive amounts of purchasing advice being dished out? Let us know by responding to the InformationWeek blog.