Anneke Kunik: "You develop a sixth sense for posts that are not authentic'

Many of us read online reviews on a retailer’s website to discover what other shoppers thought of a product before buying goods over the internet. But how much these reviews can be trusted is another matter and retailers are becoming increasingly aware they may lose sales if customers have no faith in product critiques.

Research among US and UK consumers commissioned by Bazaarvoice, an online reviews specialist, says 70 per cent of shoppers check posts made by other people before buying a product online. But the same survey showed half of these consumers think many online reviews are fake.

Bazaarvoice provides third-party vetting of online reviews and its customers – such as US electronics company LG and French retailer Boulanger – can add a logo to their websites indicating that customer posts have been independently reviewed for authenticity.

Gene Austin, chief executive of the Texas-based company, says authentication of reviews can be a simple technical process. Every computer in the world has an individual electronic fingerprint, known as an internet protocol (or IP) address. Bazaarvoice’s software spots when an address makes multiple submissions to a website. This may indicate that one person is running a campaign to either promote or denigrate a product and allows posts from that source to be blocked.

While software can carry out simple assessments of the language in a review and can locate objectionable content, such as obscene words, there is still a great deal that requires the human touch.

“We’ve introduced a lot of technology to moderation but there comes a point where the technology is not enough,” says Mr Austin. He says is why the company also employs 300 moderators who speak 37 languages.

The moderators assess the sentiment behind a review and look for tell-tale signs that a post might not be reliable. The aim is to offer reliable observations, not to strip out negative reviews. “We do not allow our clients to cherry pick reviews and only post up the good ones.”

A different approach is taken at Trusted Shops, a German company that also offers online review services. Trusted Shops sends consumers an invitation to review a product only after they have made a purchase. This ensures that reviews come from people with experience of the goods they are writing about.

Christian Siebert, customer reviews manager at the Cologne business, says human intervention is still necessary. As well as employing a team of moderators he encourages the public to email the company about any dubious posts. “Even with moderation you need a community of interest out there. We want consumers to report any post they find suspicious.”


Moderation is the way forward

The best way to choose a product based on online reviews is to filter out the most positive and negative comments and base your decision on those in the middle. So says Anneke Kunik, a senior moderation coach at Bazaarvoice.

Ms Kunik worked as a moderator before training others in the art of spotting suspicious comments. Her job is to make sure that Bazaarvoice’s clients have authentic reviews written by genuine customers on their sites.

She and her colleagues work within guidelines that allow them to interpret masses of online content. To go live on the client’s site, a comment has to be relevant to the product, helpful to potential customers and not in any way discriminatory.

The moderators work from home, sifting through hundreds of comments in each session, and maintain their concentration by sticking to short shifts of no more than four hours at a time. If they approve a review by ticking a box it goes live immediately.

The public’s tendency to vent opinions on wholly irrelevant subjects is one reason for Ms Kunik to cut out posts. “If I go to a reviews site for kitchen appliances I want to get information about how good the dishwasher is, I do not want to hear about someone’s trip to Paris.”

Certain words and phrases betray the fact that a review cannot be trusted. When Ms Kunik spots the remark “I’ve heard that . . . ” this suggests the post is based on rumour and is not worth publishing.

Above all, she searches for signs of authenticity. A Belgian citizen by birth, she was originally hired for her language skills. “You develop a sixth sense for posts that are not authentic,” she says, recalling a series of glowing reviews that appeared for a Belgian client. “Once I saw 30 or 40 posts all written using superlatives. I know people in Belgium just don’t talk like this.”

A check on the IP address behind these posts revealed they all came from the same computer and were a crude attempt to drive custom to one retail outlet.

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