“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business.”
-help-for-hire site Fiverr

“I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.”
-Digital Point

“If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”


As if you didn’t know that the many reviews were purchased:

The boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind.

Sandra Parker, a freelance writer who was hired by a review factory this spring to pump out Amazon reviews for $10 each, said her instructions were simple. “We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one,” said Ms. Parker, whose brief notices for a dozen memoirs are stuffed with superlatives like “a must-read” and “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.”

Determining the number of fake reviews on the Web is difficult. But it is enough of a problem to attract a team of Cornell researchers, who recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm for detecting fake reviewers. They were instantly approached by a dozen companies, including Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, all of which have a strong interest in limiting the spread of bogus reviews.

“The whole system falls apart if made-up reviews are given the same weight as honest ones,” said one of the researchers, Myle Ott. Among those seeking out Mr. Ott, a 22-year-old Ph.D. candidate in computer science, after the study was published was Google, which asked for his résumé, he said.”

Yelp’s business model? Not so good. This should be a boon for Zagats . . .


In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5
NYT, August 19, 2011

Category: Really, really bad calls, Web/Tech

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

22 Responses to “The Review Factory”

  1. kevin r says:

    I think Yelp is safe from star-padding for now for two reasonss. 1) The specific dynamics of what Yelp primarily reviews, restaurants, tend to be very limited temporally. I significantly lower the weight of a review in my mind the older it becomes. 2) Yelp generates a significant volume of written data to back up the rating. In SF it is rare to find a restaurant with less than 100 reviews, many giving specifics about the visit. So even if you paid a few thousand dollars to get a place going, the next wave of “real” reviews would wash it out. That said, Yelp does have a filtering system in place, so it is not immune.

    If I were Zagat I would still be quite worried about Yelp. Especially when they finally get around to buying Open Table.

    Longer lived establishments like hotels, or less reviewed items like books, are definitely open to gaming. So I am not surprised to see TripAdvisor or Amazon mentioned. Yelp will have to do more, too, if it wants to expand much beyond food.

  2. crunched says:

    Don’t forget Itunes. I don’t believe half the reviews for movies or music.

  3. mathman says:

    This behavior is just the end result of this paradigm:


    “We live in interesting times. The global economy is splintering. U.S. voters hate all politicians and there’s political unrest throughout the world. The root cause of this turmoil is the failure of the dominant economic paradigm — global corporate capitalism.”

    good short read (5 well-reasoned “causes”).

  4. franklin411 says:

    How much do they pay for trolls? :)

  5. whskyjack says:

    I find review comments to be worthless, either they are some one with a problem that may or may not be relevant or they are clueless positive. It is a rare review that gives you any information that is worthwhile.

  6. whskyjack says:

    Yep, and don’t forget the trolls. It is like many mainstream media blog’s comment sections. Not worth the pain of reading them.

  7. Gnatman says:

    The online mortgage comapnies pay $5 for each and $25 for three.

  8. MacroEconomist says:

    Absolutely agree on Zagat. It’s a matter of barriers to entry. I review on Zagat as well and trust the commentators reviews. Not so much on Tripadvisor or Amazon.

  9. MadHemingway says:

    I hope you’re aware that reviews have played a big hand in making MYOB a $1.3B company. Heh!!!

    Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. Especially since I used it.

    Btw, 37Signals had a great piece about Wizards of Bullshit ( http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2966-wizards-of-bullshit-how-forbes-turned-65-million-into-20-billion ). Enjoy!

  10. Joseph Martinez says:

    Reviews are hard to judge because you don’t know the frame of reference of the reviewer. Reviews come from professionals, amateurs, first time users, and paid reviewers. A law should be passed that requires the reviewer to be identify as a paid reviewer, professionals, amateurs, or first time users. However the dark force in this country would put an end to such a law as being harmful for business.

  11. econimonium says:

    This is really easy, you do what I do to student reviews. You toss out the top ones, and you toss out the bottom ones. Some people really love something, some people really hate something. Both reviews are pretty much worthless. What is interesting are the 3 and 4 star reviews that actually tell you something. On Amazon and Yelp, that’s what I look for (and everywhere else). That way you avoid the fanboys and the trolls. Sort of like trying to get the skinny on an Apples product heehee Speaking of which, can I PLEASE have a screen that doesn’t glare and I can read though smudge prints? Then might, just might, consider an iPad for travel. Right now, all I have is an iPad mini…the iPhone. And I can barely read the thing except in perfect light.

  12. wunsacon says:

    I rarely read positive reviews. I skip to the negative ones and then just decide whether they raise issues that concern me.

  13. herewegoagain says:

    ~ “Quote of the day” ~

    A comment about today’s quote of the day.

    I trust it’s obvious to us all that for Thoreau, “rich” is richness of spirit rather than an opulent life. (i.e. it’s not a refined way of saying, “You can’t take it with you.)

    But I discovered recently that Emerson supported Thoreau financially much of his adult. And he often lived in the Emerson house as something of a handyman, also keeping Emerson’s wife company during his frequent lecture tours. So today’s quote may be far more complex than a first impression suggests.

  14. Orange14 says:

    @econimonium – don’t you know that you need to wear cotton gloves when using Apple products. That’s the smudge proof way. I’m a Kindle user and don’t plan to change anytime soon.

  15. l_emmerdeur says:

    An unspoken assumption is that “proper” reviewers for “respectable” publications are somehow more credible. Take, for example, the New York Times, and their very own restaurant reviewer, Sam Sifton.

    Now, I can understand disagreeing on occasion with one or another review – all reviews of food are by their nature subjective – to a certain extent. We can all agree, however, that the disparity between such opinions can only go so far. Sometimes, awful food is awful food, and no amount of subjectivity drift can account for a glowing review of terrible food.

    Such is the 2-star review of Millesime offered up by Mr. Sifton. Example: he refers to “marvelous bread with a butter cut with red wine and shallots.” We saw neither on our visit there. the butter was good-quality, salty butter, but the bread was the kind of about-to-go stale generic fare, which might have been great if they had bothered to warm or toast it. Alas, I believe they had bigger fish to fry… which gets us to the seafood. I assume the kitchen had some accident with the salt shaker, because everything we ordered seemed to have been part of some industrial sodium chloride accident. The seafood platter ordered by my fellow diners was described by Mr. Sifton as “bracing”, which I assume in his dictionary is defined as “somewhat undersized and mediocre”. I, not in the mood for seafood, had the cassoulet, figuring, “Hey, brasserie, can’t go wrong with a cassoulet”. Oh, how wrong I was. I ate three bites before the salt (did I mention the salt?) numbed my taste buds and spiked my blood pressure.

    My conclusion is that either Mr. Sifton does not know how to eat, or this review was bought and paid for. I suspect the latter, simply because this is the culture we live in nowadays. Whichever is the case, this is the restaurant reviewer of the New York Times, the Throne of Judgment in a city where food and the restaurant business are second only to real estate in terms of importance and cache.

    In conclusion, trust no one, and verify everything.

    On another note, the products I trust the most on Amazon are not those with 4.5 or 5 stars, but those where the poor reviews have responses from the manufacturer’s customer service. Expecting perfection is foolish. Even with a perfect product, sometimes you get a factory dud. How the manufacturer deals with this fact of life is the most important factor in picking a product. So let the flood of faux reviews continue – the truth, as they say, will out.

  16. Mike in Nola says:

    Why’d BR have to post this now? Was just on Trip Advisor looking for places to stay in London. I do believe that Tripadvisor reviews, where there are a lot of them, are pretty reliable. I’ve found them generally pretty helpful. It still seems to be a place where a lot of people do contribute information just for spirit of the thing. I’ve posted a a couple of dozen.

    It’s partly a matter of stats. If you have a hundred or several hundred reviews of a hotel, the chances that a significant number are bogus goes was down.

    Of course, as l_emmerdeur points out, food reviews are by their nature subjective. And it depends on the demographic. When I look at restaurant reviews on tripadvisor for some Texas towns and see chain restaurants at the top, I know to take those with a grain of salt. OTOH, reviews in better eating towns have put me onto some good places.

  17. hdoggy says:

    Why not just add a sixth star for really really good reviews?


  18. theexpertisin says:

    Don’t forget to remember the slanted push/pull polls taken during our political cycle.Also, the polls that are skewed (stacked) with one political party or another giving pre-ordained views.

    This was a timely post.

  19. tradeking13 says:

    I had a seller on the Amazon Marketplace offer me $20 to take down my bad review. Easiest $20 I ever made.

  20. ZenRazor says:

    One of my neighbors told me that his college-age daughter writes several Yelp reviews per day for places she has never been to. They are brokered to her and her friends and sometimes come with restaurant menu items or hotel spa treatments highlighted for inclusion in the review.

    A few years ago I wondered why someone would bother to write five paragraphs about their dinner at the local Thai restaurant. I guess it should have been obvious.

  21. Hey You says:

    Hey Barry, I will give your Website 5 stars for free. You actually post some great thought provoking content. Keep up the good work.

  22. Bob is still unemployed   says:

    Even without the purchase of 5-star reviews, the whole star rating concept is flawed.