C&B Notes

Online Review Skewing

If a system is gameable, humans will find a way to game it.

In the brutal world of online commerce, where a competing product is just a click away, retailers need all the juice they can get to close a sale.

Some exalt themselves by anonymously posting their own laudatory reviews.  Now there is an even simpler approach: offering a refund to customers in exchange for a write-up.

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Fake reviews are drawing the attention of regulators.  They have cracked down on a few firms for deceitful hyping and suspect these are far from isolated instances.  “Advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it’s now presenting itself in different ways,” said Mary K. Engle, the Federal Trade Commission’s associate director for advertising practices.  “We’re very concerned.”

Researchers like Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are also taking notice, trying to devise mathematical models to systematically unmask the bogus endorsements.  “More people are depending on reviews for what to buy and where to go, so the incentives for faking are getting bigger,” said Mr. Liu.  “It’s a very cheap way of marketing.”

In a related story, the Chrome division of Google unknowingly pursued its own “link-buying” strategy to subvert the company’s search algorithm, which it considered a serious enough violation to punish itself.