5 Reasons Verified Reviews are No Silver Bullet

Despite all the evidence, people still tend to believe that quick solutions are the best way to resolve complex issues.

Such is the case with verified reviews – reviews submitted by individuals who in some way can verify their purchase history of particular products – which were supposed to be an answer to the issue of fake or inaccurate reviews, but fall far short.

It’s a nearly universal viewpoint that verified reviews are the future of online reviews as a whole, and that as soon as we implement them, the problem of fake reviews will simply disappear. In truth, assuming that verified reviews will fix online reviews isn’t just wrong, it’s also harmful to consumers – and in turn, also harmful to online sellers.

What could be wrong with verified reviews?

Less data on fewer products

TripAdvisor, the unquestionably biggest player in the travel review industry, relies on consumer reviews even more than a typical consumer retail site. It is therefore interesting that they recently rejected the adoption of proof-of-purchase-based verified reviews on the basis of content scope. As a spokesperson for TripAdvisor put it in an interview with The Guardian, “we believe that every experience counts – not just that of the person who paid the bill. If four friends go out to dinner there will be four different opinions, but only the one person with the receipt would be able to leave a review.” In essence, those seeking the verified model are losing out on reviews from larger groups – and that’s a huge amount of data.

Not foolproof against scams and manipulations

Despite the assumed high amount of trust that accompanies verified reviews, the possibility for unscrupulous behavior still exists. For example, it is common practice for hotels in the developing world to give a discount to travelers in exchange a positive review, written on the spot. And of course, many sites offering goods or services have a vested interest in keeping reviews positive. On many consumer or ranking sites, ratings are occasionally inflated because the company makes money with each booking. Similarly, many review sites, verified or unverified, have a vested interest in sorting or even manipulating reviews based on the affiliate fees they receive.

Human bias can’t be eliminated

There is a classic psychological experiment in which a group of people are placed into a classroom and asked questions on basic knowledge or math. With the exception of one single test subject, all the people in the room are actors who intentionally provide wrong answers. Study after study has shown that the subject will repeat the wrong answers even though they contradict his or her own correct beliefs. The idea that a legitimate reviewer’s opinion could be swayed in light of many other contradicting ones is not implausible, especially when dealing with a smaller pool of reviewers.

Getting people to leave reviews is already difficult enough

A simple Google search reveals the difficulty in isolating the percentage of people who leave reviews online, but estimates are low across the board in comparison with the huge amount of online commerce consumers. A writer for the well-known blog Freakanomics estimates that only one in one thousand Amazon book purchasers leave a review, and that’s with Amazon’s infamously pushy emails trying to prompt them to do so after a purchase.  With an already low percentage despite the proliferation of reviewer status rankings offered by some apps and retailers to entice consumers to take part, an added level of verification required would only serve as more of a deterrent to an already miniscule reviewing population.

Aggregated models can give the best of both worlds

All the general issues affecting verified reviews are most likely an afterthought to the one main question in deciding for or against verified reviews. Do we want more data, or do we want data that makes us feel safer because of the extra step required for the reviewer? This question is a fallacy due to aggregation models, it’s a question the consumer doesn’t truly need to answer. By aggregating from multiple reviews sites an aggregated model gives in incredible sample size, but it can also easily incorporate verified reviews. Consumers could even compare the verified review sample against the unverified masses side by side.

Verified reviews have issues, as do all other models of review sites. But are verified reviews reminiscent of that famous Winston Churchill quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”? Thanks to the aggregated model of reviews, the answer is no.

Eli Mashiah is CEO & Founder of Shadow.com.

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