One of the big benefits of the Internet is its super-sized word of mouth, that vast array of picks ‘n’ pans that cover everything from cars to cardiac surgeons.  Word of mouth, testimonials, personal influence – whatever you want to call it – has a significant and often decisive impact of the purchasing decisions we all make. And the closer we’re connected to the endorsers, the more influential they are.

Internet sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, of course, are populated by a bunch of strangers, who’d normally be low-impact. But it’s the “bunch” – the volume effect – that gives them credibility and authority. Until, that is, you plug “Yelp sued” into the Googletron and get this.

A sense that online reviews are rigged can easily trump the volume effect. So Internet merchants and e-review sites couldn’t have welcomed today’s New York Times piece headlined, “For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Reviews.”


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.

By the time VIP Deals ended its rebate on late last month, its leather case for the Kindle Fire was receiving the sort of acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-il. Hundreds of reviewers proclaimed the case a marvel, a delight, exactly what they needed to achieve bliss. And definitely worth five stars.

And the piece is definitely worth reading, even if it does itself go overboard at times. Case in point, this statement:

As the collective wisdom of the crowd displaces traditional advertising, the roaring engines of e-commerce are being stoked by favorable reviews.

Yes, well, the engines of e-commerce can roar all they want – nothing has displaced traditional advertising.


Especially not e-reviews.

No stars for that pronouncement.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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