Last month I watched a news story about an investigation performed by CBC to discover the identity of a “serial” testimonial giver. According to the story (article here), one woman had been hired by dozens of companies to give glowing video testimonials for various products and services. In each video, the woman portrayed a different character to fit the product or service being promoted (e.g., a financial advisor, a licensed dietician, teacher, etc.).
I often look at peer reviews to get a sense of how good a product, service, place, or restaurant might be. Even when reading peer reviews, I’m thinking about how to evaluate the quality of the reviewer. As I wrote about earlier (in Irony of the Information Age), when reading a bad review, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the product was inferior, or if the person simply had trouble using it.
When I read reviews, I look at a mix of ratings, often balancing out my selection with a few from the middle (4/5 stars or 2/5 stars). Somehow I feel like some of these have a better chance of being genuine. However, after listening to this news story, I’m definitely going to be even more discerning when reading (or watching) online reviews. I always knew that companies hired people to give positive testimonials, but it didn’t stop me from reading them. It just meant that peer reviews could only be one part of the selection process.
It’s unfortunate that so many peer reviews are disingenuous because it’s one aspect of the selection process that can be the most helpful. Often when I search online for help with something technical, I prefer to get it from peers instead of the vendor because my peers will use the product like I do and therefore have more targeted solutions. A company can’t always anticipate how someone will decide to use their product. For that reason, I prefer to read/watch peer tutorials, because they’re (often) not financially motivated.
Even before the internet and social media existed, how often would you call a friend for a review or recommendation of something? And how likely were you to trust that person’s testimony?
The internet is supposed to be this amazing space where anybody can have their voice heard, but what about when those voices are paid, or endorsed, and we don’t know that? Who are we supposed to trust?