Beware Online Reviews and Hidden Agendas

Samsung is only the latest to be caught gaming online customer reviews.

When word got out that Samsung was paying students to write fake Web reviews, condemnation swiftly followed. But singling out Samsung in a world of false testimony seems a bit silly. After all, everyone does it. Some of the biggest culprits: Apple's community of iOS app developers, or at least the marketing agencies that serve them.

Fair trade officials in Taiwan recently launched an investigation into Samsung's hidden marketing practices. Allegedly, Samsung hired students to write glowing reviews of its products and nasty reviews of rival HTC smartphones. According to the BBC, Samsung said the "unfortunate incident" had gone against the company's "fundamental principles."

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Samsung says it has now "ceased all marketing activities that involve the posting of anonymous comments."

Outrage over such practices, however, is a bit self-serving given the widespread practice of gaming the review system.

Flash back only a couple of years ago when the iPhone represented the latest gold rush for app developers. Marketers, who were trying to separate their app from others in the increasingly crowded App Store, would use some of their marketing dollars to buy the app in volume and write up five-star reviews, as well as slam competitors.

The sudden popularity could trick Apple's ranking system, landing the app on a coveted "Top 25" list. Eureka! The app strikes gold. (For more on this, check out Apple App Store's Dirty Little Secret.)

In the summer of 2009, Reverb Communications, a PR firm representing game publishers and developers, was accused of hiring teams of interns posing as gamers to write fake reviews on online message boards and the App Store. Reverb claims its interns and employees write reviews based only on their personal game play experience.

And then there's Yelp.

While not accused of writing fake reviews, Yelp has faced lawsuits over the alleged practice of positioning good reviews high and eliminating bad ones in relation to a company's willingness to advertise.

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On the other hand, Yelp has tried to halt deceptive reviews. Late last year, Yelp set up a sting operation to remedy the situation. If a company is caught trying to buy reviews and Yelp finds out about it, Yelp would feature a "consumer alert" saying that it caught the company red-handed, the New York Times reported.

Late last year, a woman facing a defamation lawsuit was ordered to alter a negative Yelp review of a home contractor after police found her claims didn't add up, reports TechCrunch.

Truth is, many reviews have a bias or hidden agenda. Samsung is only the latest in a long line of companies and individuals gaming online review systems. So it's best not to take any one or two or three reviews very seriously, rather look at the aggregate of reviews.

Even this, though, can be sketchy. How many interns can Samsung hire to write customer reviews? Probably a lot.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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