noodlies on Weekend Sunrise 30 Sep 2012

Weekend Sunrise: Online cash for comment?

It all started with this article, Fake online reviews mean cash-for-comment is rife by Asher Moses, Fairfax Media’s Technology Editor, a reality check about the murky world of online paid comments and ratings.  The question posed by Moses’ article:

Online reviews — of apps, books, films, hotels and restaurants — increasingly drive consumer decisions, but with as many as a third of them fake, can people take what they read at face value?

The article points out sections in Fiverr and Freelancer where people around the world are paid by companies to rate or favourably review products, sometimes the reviewer hasn’t even used the product or service.  According to the article, review sites including Amazon, UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor, Yelp and others are affected.  Bloggers have also been cited in the article with quotes from respected Sydney and Melbourne food blogger, Penny:

Penny said she, like many other bloggers, had been paid by companies to review their products but “everything is my own words”. “The highest amount I got was about $800 or something … it’s [for] a brand of milk that baristas use for coffee so we were supposed to test that at home and posted a review online.

Seamus Byrne, editor of CNET and I went on Weekend Sunrise this morning to discuss the topic.  Key points I made include:

  • consumers now have greater choice with review sites like TripAdvisor
  • consumers are savvy enough to work out the fake reviews
  • bloggers should have a code of ethics so their activity is transparent
  • ‘traditional media’ also receive free products and services
Watch the segment above for the full discussion.
noodlies on Weekend Sunrise
Do you agree? What do you think? Love to know your thoughts.


There are 22 comments

Add yours
    • Thang Ngo

      It’s common practice for traditional media to get books, cds, dvds, movie tickets, hotels, overseas trips. I think the key is declaration, as long as bloggers declare I’m not sure why we should then be subject to stricter conditions.

    • Thang Ngo

      Haha.. I don’t think that smh article thought through all the issues… in particular linking free meals, sponsored posts to paid comments, ratings, something all decent bloggers would never do. It should also have mentioned traditional media, including Fairfax writers also getting freebies including trips, accommodation etc.

  1. [email protected]

    I think that it’s great that people now have access to a variety of different sources for information and this will continually evolve.

    There has been an increase in the use of blogs by companies as a promotional tool with invites to events and cookware giveaways. The key problem is that this calls into question the objectiveness of blogs, as it is more likely that a positive review will be provided and the product/event probably wouldn’t have been reviewed if the freebie was not given out in the first place. As Penny stated in the article, it wouldn’t be very nice to write something that you didn’t like if you were invited.

    Blogging and traditional media operate on different dynamics. Blogs are considered more personal and honest, and have a connection with their readers and this is what the PR companies are tapping into. When you are given an incentive, you will write about your experience differently which impacts on your trust capital.

    There’s also a need for consistency in how you treat reviews in order to be fair not only your readers but to restaurants too. I found it interesting that Penny mentioned that if she had paid for her meal and she didn’t like it then she would write something about it. But if it was a free meal it seems like she would be less likely to say anything bad.

    This puts restaurants who may not engage with bloggers for PR at a disadvantage because their meal experience will be written about differently.

    Is it ok for a restaurant to engage with bloggers to ensure that more positive reviews are posted online? This is probably increasingly happening.

    If a restaurant sees a blogger eating a meal (bloggers aren’t that hard to spot) and actively alters the meal experience by providing something free to influence the outcome it wouldn’t seem fair as all diners should be treated the same and the blogger is getting special treatment.

    It’s true that traditional media gets freebies too. So what bloggers choose to do with the opportunities that come their way will be a personal decision and as long as they are transparent about it, people will judge accordingly and decide whether or not to continue reading. The ability of readers to make up their own minds on what they read should not be underestimated.

    I also think it’s important for bloggers to keep it real, they should write for themselves and not PR companies/$.

    My 2 cents 🙂


    • Thang Ngo

      Yup, definitely agree with keeping it real, Ai-Ling. The landscape is much more complex, but everyone has to get used to it because it’s not changing. Also think we should declare the freebies for transparency too.

  2. Cusinera

    Thang, I just found you!!! I saw your interview link from one of the retweets in Twitter. Bravo! What a good speaker you are at Sunrise…you mesmerize me, you make me sit and listen =)

  3. bob

    I think you’re a tad more lucid that the cnet dude making succint points regarding traditional media and the ilk. Gotta love that the screen grab is about alan jone’s disgusting troll of the death of gillard’s father making this article quite on the cuff. I think there should be more concern about people using sites like US+TA to take down the credibilty of good restaurants for no reason

    • Thang Ngo

      I really don’t mean to play off against traditional media, but I don’t like double standards either. Just because bloggers are a diverse group, with many being ‘part time’ and generally nice ppl, doesn’t mean we unethical and stupid. Agree with your points about mis-use of Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor, sometimes by competition even, but at the end of the day, I still think ppl are smart enough to see through it.

  4. Adam

    This is always an interesting topic for me because I spend a lot of my time thinking about the exact same problem in medicine. In medicine, biased reporting has literally killed hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of pharmaceutical industry profits, so its a big problem. As I see it, the restaurants of Sydney are not yet as corrupted as the pharmaceutical industry but there are some important parallels.

    Instead of paid reviews and food bloggers with conflicts of interest, we have clinical trials paid for by pharma companies and clinical researchers sponsored to write nice things about particular drugs, particularly in clinical trials.

    It all gets very complicated but the three biggest problems (in restaurant-speak) are (a) publication bias – where negative reviews don’t get published and so we get swamped with positive reviews, shifting the balance; (b) posts that “minimise” the bad aspects of the restaurant, even when the conflicts of interest are listed; and (c) that no one actually decides to review the bad restaurants to show people where not to go.

    In medicine, these three problems mean that we pay too much (via taxes) for ineffective and unsafe drugs, and more and more drugs are prescribed to everyone even if we don’t need them (aka pre-hypertension). I’m not kidding when I say that it has killed hundreds of thousands of people (google rofecoxib), and driven the cost of healthcare to 17+% of GDP (in the US).

    In food blogging and reviewing, this means that some dodgy restaurants get more business because they know how to game the system.

    The only self-correcting factor is that the blogs and websites will stop being read if they can’t be trusted. But it *is* very hard to know what to trust – although Thang would say that we are sophisticated and smart enough to know when we are being fed bogus reviews. I don’t quite have the same sort of faith in the intelligence of your average Sydney-sider. And that doesn’t get rid of the two other problems I described above anyway.

    By flooding the market with positive reviews, minimising bad aspects, and not blogging alternatives (think New Shanghai as an example), we get a distorted view of the restaurant. By having people in power (think of the professional restaurant marketers we all know) with better “reach”, the message gets distorted. By not having any sort of “peer review” we get people on Yelp telling us that if you “don’t love Grill’d there must be something very very wrong with you.” (not kidding, go look).

    The short version of the story is that even if you diligently report your conflicts of interest on your blog/yelp/wherever, when we stick everybody’s reviews together and sit back and squint until everything blurs together, everyone is contributing to the problem without meaning to. The good news is that its an equally difficult problem to deal with in much larger systems (so don’t feel bad that we can’t solve it), and at the end of the day, we might just be sending people to the second-best restaurant but you’re unlikely to cause their deaths.

    Oh and if you’re really interested, check out my academic website and you can read/request some of the papers I’ve written in epidemiology, pharmacology, and even in translational medicine, which cover these topics in some detail. You’ll just have to replace the pharma references for restaurant references. I’m currently writing an editorial for another journal summarising the problems right now, but lets keep that quiet for now 🙂

  5. Harper@ Powermac

    We’ve got the same problem here in the UK, and it appears Globally from latest reports. It appears in this instance that review sites are being used as a means to fire employees and a number have been fired over comments posted by agrieved fellow employees, let alone customers. The idea of a review site has been completely blown out the water and I think the same can be said for many high profile blogs.

Leave a Reply